Connan Mockasin on Scoring a Film and Surfing in Iceland

Connan Mockasin doesn’t own a phone.

That thing we assume we can’t live without because we’ll quickly become irrelevant and fade into oblivion—he doesn’t have one, not even a flip phone, and he seems to be doing just fine. Despite what conclusions you might draw from his phoneless existence, Connan is neither a misanthrope or Luddite, but a prolific world traveller who’s always somewhere else, doing something new. He grew up in New Zealand, he’s lived in London, his partner and kid live in Japan, he recently recorded with Charlotte Gainsbourg on an island off France, and toured the South Pacific backing up the Finns from Crowded House.

Connan is currently in the middle of a west coast tour of America to support a soundtrack for soon to be released surf film Self Discovery for Social Survival, a project that took him to Iceland alongside world-class surfers and a film crew, and to NYC, where he recorded the music with his good friend Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT.

With the silky textures of his guitar tones that swim through calm oceans of reverb and glide along glistening horizons, you’d think he’d be the perfect fit for a surf soundtrack… and he is. But he’ll quickly tell you that his psychedelic freak folk isn’t surf music. Even though his music has been used in surf movies, even though he grew up in a surfing town, he disagrees. Catching up with Connan wasn’t easy (see above), but we were happy to track him down and ask about his recent adventures.

You don’t have a phone, is that true?

I don’t. No.

That’s great. I admire that. How do you get away with it?

It’s easier than you think. Well, sometimes it can be a bit hard. It’s mostly when you have to sign up for something you need a phone for such and such, or they have to send you a text message. And Ubers and stuff like that.

Despite being assumedly hard to reach, you seem to keep busy falling into all of these amazing projects.

I mean, I have email.

Let’s start by talking about the surf movie. How did that all come to fruition?

Well, I really enjoy surfing. I used to surf a bit when I was younger, but more than anything I wanted to watch really good surfers in real life. That was my main thing. So I said to Keith at Mexican Summer about doing a trip with some really good surfers, and Andrew [VanWyngarden], my friend Tim and I could make some music for it… but really it was just a way to try and get to go surfing with some really good surfers. So we did a test run in Nicaragua and it didn’t really work. It didn’t work at all, actually. Then he asked us to come to Iceland for the surfing video, so we went on to that and got to watch some really great surfing in real life.

So in a way, you initiated the whole thing?

Well, originally it was kind of my idea to go and watch and then it kind of stopped. Then it became something that wasn’t my idea but I was still involved. I just enjoyed the ride.

Are you surfing in the movie at all?

Andrew and I did go surfing and catch waves but they didn’t use any of our footage in the movie. Hold on, I shouldn’t be saying that. When everyone is in those big wetsuits you wouldn’t know. But I‘m pretty sure they didn’t get any of us.

When you were making the music, did you have the sound in your mind or was it all off the cuff? In the movie, some of the music is being made while watching the film. 

That’s how some it was done. After Iceland, Andrew and I went to New York where Andrew lives, and the footage you see of us with the screening is in a studio doing some of it there. But then I came back to New York again and I stayed with Andrew and we set up our own studio in his house and did probably an album’s worth of soundtrack music. They picked songs from that.

When did the other people become involved?

We had nothing more to do with it. It was out of our hands after that. We just gave them a lot of music and they picked what they thought went best. I didn’t have anything to do with making the film.

You used to surf a bunch, but not so much anymore?

I grew up on a small beach, in a town of maybe 500 people or so in New Zealand called Te Awanga. My parents lived right by the beach so I was surfing all along. We had a nice right-hand point break out there that was really fun. So I used to go surfing a lot when I was young until I left home and started living in cities. But I still enjoy watching it and I still enjoy going out… sometimes.

Do you have favourite surf movies or surf movie soundtracks?

I went to go see Endless Summer II when it came out at the movies. That was just amazing. I watched that maybe 20 times and that led me to watch the original. I had a bunch of tapes in the 90s, you know, surfing films.

It’s always been interesting to me that surfing has its own style of music. There aren’t a lot of activities that have their own musical style. It started with a sound and evolved a little bit, but the sound itself has remained somewhat unchanged.

Yeah, that’s true. I’m not sure it’s evolved at all. I reckon that it went from the classic 60s surf sound and that was its own thing. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, they had college punk on the soundtracks: NOFX and Pennywise and stuff like that. Now it seems like they’re a pastiche of the 60s music again, which I actually find pointless because it’s not anything new. I think we’re in need of something. Something needs to happen.

Really, you think so?! You don’t think that the original became the tried and true sound and we were just naturally led back to it?

No, I think that copying something that is just more of a watered down version of what was great back then is… I don’t know. I think we need something new now. That’s just my personal opinion.

Tell me about some of the most memorable moments that happened while filming?

I thought that all of the surfers were very nice and humble. That was really, really lovely. We had such a great time with them. I remember John John Florence won the world title one early morning when we were all in bed. It was me and Stephanie Gilmore and Andrew, watching on a phone. It was really memorable. It was in Portugal where he won I think.

Stephanie Gilmore in ‘Self Discovery for Social Survival’

The drives were really impressive over there in Iceland, and dangerous as well… icy and windy. There was this one beach break called Betty’s Wave because of this old woman that had the only house there—her name was Betty. The waves were really big one day and breaking very close to the shore—heavy, heavy barrels. I had a bottle of delicious local vodka and we tried getting as close as we could to watch the other surfers. It was absolutely terrifying. Andrew and I didn’t go. It was too big. Andrew actually got into his wetsuit though. He was keen, but it was dangerous.

How long have you known Andrew and how did you guys link up?

Andrew and I met in Paris. In 2008 or so, MGMT were doing an after party in Paris and I was asked to get together a band and play at that. Actually, I didn’t meet Andrew there. But we did meet in Paris another time and we both talked about surfing and then we did this trip together in Nicaragua and did some surfing there. We just became best friends. We talk every day.

Even though you don’t have a phone?

It’s not too hard to do because I have a laptop.

Would you surf music influences the sound of your solo music?

No. Well, some of my music has been in a surf movie. What was that film called… Lost Atlas. They used my music and that was nice. I think that they put that in very well. But otherwise I don’t really listen to surf music much and I don’t think it’s influenced my sound all that much.

As far you other projects, how did you get involved with Charlotte Gainsbourg? I just read that she said you were instrumental in getting her back into making music.

Well that’s very nice. I don’t think the record label liked what I was doing so much. Those were just loose ideas, we were just getting started. But I really like what we did and I would love people to hear it. Charlotte reached out and I made a demo for her and then we recorded it in Paris together. That’s how we met and we got along really well together. We just became friends. Her and I stayed on an island off the coast of France and we spent six weeks just making music together. She would do all the lyrics in French and I would help out and make the melodies and record them. It was really great, we did some really good stuff. I would love it if people could hear it one day.

So the parts that landed up on the new record weren’t the parts you did together?

No, none of it. Some of the songs and melodies were used I think.

So beyond the new surf movie, you have a movie of your own called Bostyn ‘n Dobsyn. How does one go about seeing it?

It’s a series. And that’s a very good question. I’ve just been playing the first episode at movie theatres. I’ll put that out for everyone at some point soon and then screen the next part in theatres. I’m not exactly sure how it will come out, but it will be out.

So your two recent musical projects are accompanied by films. Have you always thought cinematically when it comes to making music?

Maybe a bit. I do love the way that music and film can help each other out. That’s why I wanted to make a series, and I’d love to make a movie. I’ve done some soundtrack work for some films and sometimes you see things differently and don’t click with it. But if you’re doing it all yourself you can do everything exactly the way you want it. So I’m trying to get into that more.

Do you ever find it’s hard to put the music to the vision or vice versa?

Sometimes. But if you hear or see something very clearly, there’s always ways to do it—if your budget is non-existent, you can always find a way.

You give off a somewhat innocent creepy vibe in your videos. Do you agree? Is that part of your character and personality?

I don’t know. I haven’t made music videos in so long. I didn’t direct most of those things. I don’t even really remember.

Yeah, but do you feel the character you’re playing is part of you?

I don’t know. I’m just having fun with it.

Self Discovery for Social Survival is out June 18 and is now available for pre-order on iTunes. The film’s soundtrack is out June 14, order it here.

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