The New Zealand songwriter discusses his new album Jassbusters, inspired by a five-part series he recently filmed with his childhood friend
While he was growing up in Te Awanga, New Zealand, Connan Mockasin used to write comics and make films with his neighbour, Blake Pryor. The comics would number in the hundreds, and they told the story of a music teacher, Mr Bostyn, and his student, Dobsyn. Two decades later, while he was living in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, model Hiromi Oshima (Japan’s first Playboy Playmate), Mockasin decided to head to the Hollywood Hills and put these characters in a film. The result, Bostyn ’n Dobsyn, is an upcoming five-part melodrama, filmed over ten days in 2016 in a disused hair salon, with Mockasin playing Mr Bostyn and Pryor playing Dobsyn. It also features Gabriel Diggs, who was once on Celebrity Family Feud, although that’s not important right now.
If this all sounds a little unusual for someone usually associated with writing lush psych-pop songs, then you probably haven’t paid much attention to Connan Mockasin before. For the past decade or so, he’s been creating a musical universe that’s as enchanting as it is unusual, drawing you into a world that’s spellbinding in its atmosphere yet also, in ways that are sometimes hard to pin down, a little off. His first album, Forever Dolphin Love, is one of the most unique albums of the early 2010s, while its follow-up, 2013’s Caramel, sounds as silky smooth as its title.
Mockasin’s new album, Jassbusters, is a counterpart to the Bostyn ’n Dobsyn series. It’s named after the fictional band that Bostyn fronts with a group of music teachers, and is supposed to be the album that they recorded together. It still sounds like a Connan Mockasin record, though. Things are crisper and fuller here, owing to the fact that this was the first album he produced in an actual recording studio (Paris’s Studio Ferber) with an actual backing band (Nicholas Harsant, Matthew Eccles, and Rory McCarthy, who form Mockasin’s touring group, although James Blake makes a guest appearance on the song “Momo’s”). But if you’ve never been on board with Mockasin’s weirder tendencies, you’ll probably be creeped out by the Bostyn ’n Dobsyn soundbites that pepper the album, carrying more than a faint whiff of sleaze with them: “You can do anything to get good grades,” a voice says at one point. “Anything.”
Speaking during a typhoon in Toyko, where he recently moved with Hiromi, Mockasin explains how his plan is to screen Bostyn ’n Dobsyn on tour, then play as the fictional Jassbusters band, before finishing off with a set of Connan Mockasin tracks. We spoke to him about bringing Bostyn ’n Dobsyn, writing Jassbusters, his scrapped album with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and his impending fatherhood.
Hello, Connan. What time is it in Tokyo?
Connan Mockasin: Um, it’s 6:42pm.
Have you had a nice day?
Connan Mockasin: I have, yeah. We had a typhoon actually, you might have seen in the news. It was very exciting. I was out yesterday when it was happening and it was very powerful. There was a lady on the ground, holding onto a bike post, and I helped her to get up. She was 38 weeks pregnant. She was in shock, but in good spirits, and said that she was thinking of calling her child Jebi – the name of the typhoon.
You’re also going to be a father soon.
Connan Mockasin: That’s right!
Congratulations! How are you feeling about it?
Connan Mockasin: It feels fairly normal. We’re trying to enjoy sleep-ins as much as possible. I don’t really know what to expect. I guess it doesn’t really feel real until it’s real. I’ve always wanted to be a dad. I’m looking forward to the change, and I think I’ll learn new things about myself and have other things to think about more.
How are you adjusting to life in Tokyo?
Connan Mockasin: I love it. I’ve come to Japan quite often, but not spent long. It’s a really great atmosphere. The people are polite and really nice, and you just feel safe. My girlfriend, Hiromi, she’s been living away for 15 years or more, so it’s nice for her to be back home. I never was interested in living in Los Angeles – I moved there to be with her, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, but I didn’t expect much.
Let’s talk about Bostyn ’n Dobsyn. Do you remember where the idea first came from?
Connan Mockasin: Not really. They’re such old characters for us now, they’ve developed over those years. It was quite easy to slip (back into these characters), especially with Blake and myself doing it. And the other friends we were filming with had seen and heard things for years.
It’s amazing that you kept in touch with Blake Pryor all these years – I couldn’t tell you the name of my childhood neighbours. Could you tell me a bit about him?
Connan Mockasin: Not many people lived where we were from. Blake has two sisters, and I have two brothers. We grew up together. He was almost like a brother.
How did you know he hadn’t lost interest in Bostyn ’n Dobsyn over the years?
Connan Mockasin: Oh, he would’ve said. He was very excited. It felt like we were making the old movies (we used to make when we were younger). I feel really lucky that people will give a chance to what I do. If I’d started (my career) with Bostyn ’n Dobsyn, it wouldn’t have been listened to or watched, so it feels like the right time for making it.
“I didn’t want to go too heavy on the concept. I wanted something that I would like to listen to, something that was relaxing, and nothing attention-seeking” – Connan Mockasin
So, tell me about Jassbusters – the band, not the album.
Connan Mockasin: They are a band of high school music teachers. I’m not sure if you had one of those at your school?
I didn’t – but our music department wasn’t very big.
Connan Mockasin: We would only have one or two music teachers as well, but there would be other teachers that fancied themselves (as rock stars), so it was that type of thing. But at the same time, I didn’t want to go too heavy on the concept. I wanted something that I would like to listen to, something that was relaxing, and nothing attention-seeking. And I wanted it to be a loud recording that captured that feel, with no overdubbing of any lyrics. All the lyrics were made up on the spot.
What was it like working on a film compared to working on an album?
Connan Mockasin: There are just so many elements. I had no idea. I didn’t even have a storyboard, and I didn’t see the importance until we started filming – it was impossible without them. I would love to make a film again, I would do everything different. When I made my first record, Forever Dolphin Love, I had no clue how to make a record. It felt the same, you (have) accidents the whole way through, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re gonna have that looseness. That was what attracted me to making this (in the first place).
You said that you were happy you could do something like Bostyn ’n Dobsyn because you’ve built up an audience who trust you enough to go along with it.
Connan Mockasin: They’re really loyal, really lovely. And most of the time I meet people that come to the (shows), they’re people that I like talking to.
What’s the most thoughtful gift you’ve been given by a fan?
Connan Mockasin: That’s a really tough question. (Hiromi calls out) Oh yeah, yeah – Hiromi is saying I’ve gotten creepy ones. There was a doll in a frame, she was painted…
Hiromi Oshima: (in the background) The funeral photo.
Connan Mockasin: Yeah, there was one where I was in a frame, and it was a picture of me like I was dead. You know, the creepiest one was this man, this elderly man, he was at least 75, and he got my parents’ number and he would call all the time. Eventually mum had to warn him that she was going to call the police if he called again. He would send things – pictures of himself as young (man) next to me. And he would send money and comics, and inappropriate, really suspicious stuff.
Connan Mockasin: You know, there’s always thoughtful (gifts), but I don’t know the most thoughtful. But quite often you’ll get dolphins, and stuff like that.
“I think I have been burned a bit, and I’ve trusted people that I shouldn’t have. So I’ve learned how to spot a sociopath” – Connan Mockasin
What’s been the most difficult thing you’ve learned since you’ve first launched your career?
Connan Mockasin: I think I have been burned a bit, and I’ve trusted people that I shouldn’t have. So I’ve learned how to spot a sociopath.
That’s pretty useful in the music industry.
Connan Mockasin: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of them! And there’s a lot of people that are involved for the wrong reasons, whether it’s money or whether it’s… whatever their gain is. I don’t know why it attracts so many.
You’ve also been performing some stand-up comedy. How have audiences responded to that?
Connan Mockasin: Umm… mixed. It depends who it is. It’s definitely nothing serious, that’s for sure. Some people hate it.
What made you want to do it?
Connan Mockasin: Oh, I was just bored, I think. And just to annoy some people. It was one of those things – ‘When in Rome!’ – because I was living in Hollywood. (It’s) just what they all do. But (I never wanted) to have a career in it. I think it’d be horrible to be there wanting to be a star, (but) just to be there and have fun, it’s great.
I know you have an aversion to traditional recording studios. Why did you want to record Jassbusters at Studio Ferber in Paris?
Connan Mockasin: I loved that studio particularly. I had (previously made) some recordings with Charlotte Gainsbourg here, which will never get released – which is a shame, I wish they would, but the record label didn’t like what I was doing with her. But that’s how I met Renaud Letang, who’d lent us his studio. I really like working with him, so (I thought that) if I was ever to do a studio recording, I’d wanna do it there. And that’s why we did it there. I like the atmosphere in there, and I like Renaud and Thomas Moulin, his engineer, as well.
Have you listened to the Charlotte Gainsbourg album that eventually did come out, Rest?
Connan Mockasin: Yes, I have. I think they used two tracks (that we wrote together). They were produced completely differently (from the original idea).
Was it a strange experience, listening to something that was not what you necessarily expected to come out?
Connan Mockasin: No, not so much. It was what I was expecting to happen. I would love people to hear the stuff that we (wrote together). We went to stay at a place of hers together for about a month and a half, on an island off the coast of France. We made a lot of recordings together. I’d make music by myself and she’d sing French over the top, and then we recorded a bit at Studio Ferber. I would love to put them out as finished recordings – people call them demos, but they were fine as they were.
I was also going to ask also about your residency in Marfa, Texas earlier this year. That was with your father, Ade. How was it?
Connan Mockasin: That went as good as we could have imagined. I had been wanting to make a record with my dad for a long time. He had a sudden cardiac arrest in 2012 and was in a coma. He shouldn’t have survived – I was living in London at the time, and I rushed back and packed for a funeral. And he survived. He survived.
The next year, I was at a festival in the south of France, and I was talking to this woman from Haiti. She was a clairvoyant. I’d never had a reading or anything, but she did a reading and she told me that my father had nearly died and there was a project I had wanted to do with him, and she said I need to make it my priority or I will regret it for the rest of my life. So that’s why I did that.
It was one of those things where we had no idea what would happen – we hadn’t written anything, he wrote some lyrics, and we did another band recording. Everything just flowed really easily, and everything was done in a couple of days. That’s all finished and done, and I want that to be released as soon as possible.