They are wailing like cats. More than 100 French Canadians, united in a chorus of howls. The sound of it – accompanied by a slow, down-beat bass riff - is filling the ballroom of the Montreal theatre Cabaret Mile-End. Meow, meow, meow, meow meow. Meow, meow, meow, meow meow. On the stage in front of this wailing crowd is, just maybe, a musical genius, a long way from his native Te Awanga in the Hawke’s Bay. Connan Mockasin, psychedelic pop prince, is wearing a wooly Russian ushanka hat over his trademark blonde mop; a wide, hungry smile on his face. He holds his guitar up – the only guitar he has ever owned – and pushes a microphone out toward the wailing audience. “Let’s think of Montreal as a bunch of cats – and we have a dog here,” he says, motioning to Australian musician Kirin J Callinan stood shirtless beside him. Callinan – a mulleted combination of Bryan Ferry and Nick Cave – crouches beside Mockasin, pulls down a mic and howls like a dog. “Get down like cats,” Mockasin urges the crowd. Mockasin gets down too, for a few moments.
The meowing, the howling, a crowd of people on their knees acting like cats; it is a scene of complete absurdity. The Kiwi stands, gently coaxing sound from his guitar, as if not to disturb the gathered madness. After a few silky chords, he begins to sing in a shrill, child-like voice, quickly quieting the room: “Listen to your heart/ What it feels right from the start / You’re acting kind of strange/ New hope’s just for the past/ Listen to your head/ When it drags you everywhere.” He draws out the final syllable. A chorus of feline wails rise toward the chorus. Red lights fire up behind the stage. Mockasin holds up a hand, preaching silence. He drops back into the chorus, rendered in an obsessed adolescent whine: “Ah, ah, I’m, I’m the man that will find you.” Welcome to the weird world of Connan Mockasin.
Three nights later, Mockasin and his band are in the dressing room of legendary Chicago bar The Empty Bottle. No howling cats, dogs or crowd tonight.The Wicker Park venue is etched in contemporary American music myth: a joint where bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes bubbled up before hitting the big time. Upstairs, maybe 50 or 60 people will turn up to watch Mockasin and his band perform later, part of the spring tour for his 2013 album Caramel. The Empty Bottle’s dressing room is grimy, its walls plastered with images of cartoon giants smoking crack and bizarre creatures wearing crowns staring at each other’s genitals.
Mockasin – real name Connan Tant Hosford – is sitting cross-legged astride a coffee table, listening intently to drummer Matt Eccles, a long-time friend and collaborator who got his start in Liam Finn’s high school pop group Betchadupa. Eccles reminisces about Mockasin’s early days in London, following his mid-2006 move there with an earlier band, Connan and the Mockasins. They lived in shitty flats and played gigs most nights. “The way that it worked is a promoter would put five or six acts together that made no sense,” Eccles says. “Every individual band had to get as many people as [they] could. If you had 20 or less people come, you’d get nothing. “If you get 20 or more, you got one pound per person. If you got more than thirty, you got one pound fifty a person. If you were lucky, you’d get 20 quid – maybe 30.” Mockasin laughs, and takes the story from Eccles. “For a long time, we didn’t have enough for a taxi,” he says. “We had to trolley our amps, an upright bass and a full drum kit in a lawnmower box. “We’d tie the trolley up next to the tube or something, and we’d tube everything over. You’d work every day, get off work early and do soundchecks and play on these really bad nights.”
Mockasin, whose name comes from a hobby constructing moccasins from bike tire and wool as a youngster, has a kind of detached assuredness when he speaks. His sharp green eyes fall on you hard. Replies to questions are delivered in an abrupt Kiwi accent, with economy and not a hint of pretension. The guy’s got a presence, there’s no doubt about it. Mockasin’s manner sits at odds with his musical style, which defies simple classification. Since his debut in Connan and the Mockasins, the 31-year-old has transformed himself into one of modern psychedelic music’s brightest stars. He’s a harmonic explorer whose music sits somewhere on the border between genius and something so ambitious it borders on the truly ridiculous. English music writers have compared him to acid-damaged star Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd’s original singer) – a solid reference point.
The Kiwi has some famous fans, having toured with Radiohead, collaborated with Fatboy Slim and had a song covered by David Byrne. His friendship with the younger Finn remains strong too, after playing on his acclaimed 2007 debut I’ll Be Lightning. Mockasin’s 2011 album Forever Dolphin Love – a concept album about a love affair between a man named ‘Boss’ and a dolphin, concluding with a literal car crash – is one of the great modern psychedelic records. No, I’m not tripping here. The record pushed into territory under-explored by the genre in recent decades. Its ten-minute title track is a narcotic journey, pushing the listener onto a rarely traveled plane. Musically, it’s an arrangement that’s stripped back, driven by a guitar delivering constant subtle twists and turns.
Mockasin first gained an interest in music after hearing a Hendrix track on the Steven Seagal action flick Under Siege. His guitar-playing style reveals a man comfortable with his hands off the wheel. He pulls the listener along, with understated hooks and unobtrusive chords. Lyrically, he’s adventurous: “I’m a China toad/ But I’m in filing mode… I have four arms to see things through/ For fetching food, so we can’t stop”, for example, from ‘It’s Choade, My Dear’ (2010). But then the bastard opens his mouth. Now, either his voice is a delicate, child-like falsetto perfectly calibrated for psychedelia, or Mockasin simply can’t sing – and no one has plucked up the courage to tell him. The first time I saw him play was at Christchurch student bar The Foundry; I was too drunk to remember. The second was at the now demolished Schooner’s Arms in Auckland. I left after just two songs. His voice sounded terrible to me, casting a huge shadow on the music. That vocal style hasn’t changed – just my appreciation for it. Critics are all in, impressed by the limits Mockasin pushes. The NME described Caramel’s tracks as “11 opportunities for [Mockasin] to experiment with gloopy singing, sleepy guitar solos and Asian women chanting ‘C-O-N-N-A-N’, then squeeze these noises into segments of hypnotic weirdness.” The Guardian, meanwhile, called the album “such a surreal mix of pixie enchantment and pimped-out creepiness that it’s impossible not to be seduced.”
Enchantment. Creepiness. Seduction. Hypnotic weirdness. All the words that come to mind when you see the music video for Caramel’s ‘I’m The Man That Will Find You’. It is perhaps the sleaziest track ever recorded by a New Zealander. Mockasin made Caramel, recorded in a Tokyo hotel, because he liked the word and wanted to create a record that matched his definition of it. Like any of his solo material, he wrote, recorded and produced it all. “I love Tokyo,” he says. “It’s really mysterious – the sort of place that I like. I like hotel rooms, too. It’s nice to make a little recording studio in a hotel room. “I just like being by myself and having funny Japanese people around doing stuff. I don’t like studios. I don’t like set-up music situations – I find that they have too many options. It freaks me out having too many options. I like getting my own equipment and machines in, and setting up something that has not too many knobs and things. “It gets me going.”
New Zealand is definitely important to Mockasin, but you’ll get a bit of a grimace when you ask him about his homeland, and how someone as experimental as him fits in. “It’s like having a parent that you want to impress, even if it doesn’t really matter that they don’t care,” Mockasin says, about New Zealand. “It would be nice to be accepted back home, and be celebrated. We do big shows in New York, Paris and London, but back home – not that I’ve played there for a while – it just seems to go back and play to a tiny little room with only a few people in it. It would just be nice to be accepted there. It’s not going to make a difference financially or career-wise – but it’d just be nice.”
Mockasin pauses, before continuing. “On the flipside of that, it’s always nice for me to come back and be there for peace – and not for work,” he says. “It’s a nice place to be, and be separate from some of the more full-on stuff we get up to.” Mockasin’s dream is to have a live-in studio by the sea, somewhere in New Zealand. Maybe Hawke’s Bay, Raglan or somewhere up North. “I’d love to find a little spot – a little property. It’s kind of like a dream of mine, actually,” he says.“Have enough money to build your own house, your own studio and live by the beach, and just have enough to eat and drink. “You know, I’m getting older now. It does start to sneak into your mind.”
Three hours later, Mockasin stands on the stage at The Empty Bottle and surveys the crowd. There’s maybe fifty or sixty fans out there - one of the year’s smaller audiences. It’s certainly not the muddy, spaced out masses of Glastonbury, nor a fawning French audience as he performs a duet with Gainsbourg – but the end goal is the same: blow some minds. He’s got the Brian Jones look going again, wearing a brown waistcoat with long white pants and shirt, but tonight it’s like his youth is back. “Let’s roll,” he breathes into the mic, and moves off the stage, into the audience. He sits, motioning everyone else to sit around him, and launches into ‘Why Are You Crying?’. Dreamy hooks and warm chords. Mockasin is floating weightless, in defiance of the music industry’s gravity; any label’s attempt to tell him how to sound have been entirely unsuccessful. He’s out there on pop’s frontlines again tonight - miles away from anything close to resembling him. Sure, there might not be many people around, but those that have shown up are being taken somewhere weird. If life has taught me anything, going somewhere weird usually means going somewhere good.
Wherever that place is, those circling out around Mockasin on the floor of The Empty Bottle right now are heading there. Mockasin sits, eyes down at his guitar, oblivious to the reactions around him; the calm eye of his own untamable, psychedelic storm. Is landfall far away? Who knows, and who cares? Right now, no-one in this room is in any hurry to return to real life.