Music

Connan Mockasin finds his Japan groove ahead of his debut gig in his adopted country

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

“Sorry?” splutters Connan Hosford, better known as Connan Mockasin, as his bandmates cackle in the background. “Excuse me … What did you say before?”

He’s got me on speakerphone, and I’ve just mentioned the name of the group he’ll be appearing alongside at his debut Japan show this weekend — Ogre You Asshole. “Oh, man!” he says, regaining his composure. “I know who you’re talking about, but I’d not heard the actual name being said.”

Playing in Japan for the first time is a big deal for a lot of musicians, but especially so for the 36-year-old New Zealand native, one of the great eccentrics of 21st-century indie rock. After stints in London, Manchester and Los Angeles, Hosford recently moved to Tokyo to be with his partner, former Playboy Playmate Hiromi Oshima, and their newborn daughter.

“I find it so relaxing there,” he says of his newly adopted home. “I don’t know what’s going on a lot of the time, but I find the people very soothing. If there’s a conversation going on and I’m not sure what’s being said, I almost get ASMR from that,” he adds, referring to autonomous sensory meridian response, a tingly, low-grade euphoria.

Hosford was already a frequent visitor to Japan before moving here. He describes finding himself in tears on the plane after his first trip (“I felt homesick, and I’d never been there before”), and he recorded his 2013 album “Caramel” during a month-long stay at a Tokyo hotel.

The album credits list the various friends who joined him for his extended bed-in, one of whom now works at his Japan label, Hostess Entertainment Unlimited. As he recalls, “They would come and hang out at the hotel, and I would just have the microphone going.”

Hosford’s latest home is quite a change from his previous one in Los Angeles. He moved there to live with Oshima, rather than to pursue opportunities in the entertainment industry, which must have set him apart from most of the city’s new arrivals. His ambitions in Japan are no grander, though he mentions a possible move from the capital to the quieter Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.

It’s entirely typical of a career that has been characterized by the kind of insouciance you can only get away with when you possess a singular talent. Hosford records albums more or less on a whim, and is a frequent, insatiable collaborator: with James Blake, Charlotte Gainsbourg, MGMT and Dev Hynes, to name but a few. “I just get bored really easily,” he says.

Most recently, he recorded an album with his father, Ade, which he says is due for release later this year.

“That was all finished, mixed and mastered on 8-track tape in just a few days,” he says. “That one feels very exciting.”

Hosford did once try to pursue a more conventional route to stardom. Back in the mid-2000s, he moved to London with his band, Connan and the Mockasins, but the experience of getting courted by labels and groomed for fame left a nasty aftertaste. Today, he dismisses the music industry as “pathetic and tedious” and says he’s happy to keep his distance, both literally and figuratively.

That feeling was reaffirmed when an album he recorded with Gainsbourg — which would eventually become 2017’s “Rest” — was scrapped by her record label. Yet he doesn’t rule out finding a place for himself within the mainstream eventually.

“I would say most ‘indie music,’ as they call it, is disguised mainstream things, so it’s worse,” he adds.

Hosford has fared better when he’s been able to do things on his own terms. He recorded his first full-length by himself in New Zealand, after his mother nagged him to make a proper album, and self-released it as “Please Turn Me into the Snat” in 2010.

It was reissued to widespread acclaim the following year by DJ Erol Alkan’s Phantasy Sound label, under the title “Forever Dolphin Love,” earning him a support slot with Radiohead and drawing comparisons to the skewed psych-pop of Ariel Pink. But where Pink’s music sounded like cassette tapes that had been left out in the sun, Hosford’s seemed to be plucked from the liminal zone between sleep and waking.

Although “Caramel” veered closer to rhythm and blues, and parts of last year’s “Jassbusters” album could almost pass for soft rock, his work has retained that elusive quality. The songs feel familiar while always hovering just out of reach; it’s as much a hallmark as his falsetto vocals and spindly guitar lines.

“Jassbusters” is his first solo album that was recorded in a proper studio with his regular band, but he kept things unpredictable by capturing the songs live and ad-libbing all the lyrics. When I mention that I can’t work out what 90 percent of the words are for opening track “Charlotte’s Thong,” he concurs: “Neither can I. You’re not alone.”

He takes a similarly off-the-cuff approach while on tour, giving shows a ramshackle spontaneity.

“We never have a setlist, and I’m open to trying completely new things,” he says. “You’re never quite sure what will happen — which can also mean disaster as well sometimes — but it’s worth the risk. Surprising yourself is the most exciting thing.”

Hosford is speaking from Brisbane, where he’s on the second leg of a tour based around “Bostyn ‘n Dobsyn,” a five-part melodrama filmed in a disused hair salon. The series tells the story of the iffy relationship between a high school music teacher (played by Hosford) and his gender-ambiguous student (childhood friend Blake Pryor).

On each date of the tour, Hosford has screened the first episode, then played an opening set with the fictional teachers’ band featured in the film.

“We support ourselves, so we’re in character for that, and it actually feels like being a support band — it’s really nerve-wracking,” he says. “It’s been a really strange experiment.”

His upcoming tour of North America will follow a more straightforward format, but first he’s got a pair of shows in Tokyo to worry about.

Gig-goers in Japan may have spotted Hosford guesting with MGMT, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Mac DeMarco; his appearance during the latter’s set at Fuji Rock Festival last year would have drawn more attention if he hadn’t been upstaged by Post Malone. Yet it’s taken him this long to play a proper Japan show of his own. Why the delay?

“I never released any records there — I think this is the first time,” he says, referring to “Jassbusters.” “It’s also because I’ve been so excited and thought it would be really fun, that I’ve kind of almost put it off.”

He compares the delay to his experience meeting the surfer Kelly Slater, someone he says he always wanted to meet. “I sort of built it up in my head as being this thing,” he says, “and it went on for years and years, and then (when) it actually happened, I was kind of like — I didn’t know what else to do.”

Perhaps his Japan debut will leave him equally nonplussed. But if Hosford’s career to date is any indication, whatever he does next should be delightfully peculiar.

Connan Mockasin plays at Unit in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on April 13 and at Fever in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, on April 15. For more information, visit www.con-nan.com.