The sun was blazing the last of its late May rays over the green landscape of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Underneath old maple trees sat an acoustic double bass, two microphones, a drum and a speaker. An intimate crowd began to gather in anticipation of “Mocky Sunset Live” – the listening event previewing Mocky’s new album. The event was his reintroduction to his home country of Canada and the setting couldn’t be more fitting for the first listen of Key Change – an album that has taken a further step away from Mocky’s electronic past and towards his return to jazz.
As dusk approached, a handful of musicians gathered with Mocky under the big maple tree and began to play the gentle, inviting melodies of Key Change. This performance was the perfect vignette of who Mocky is as a musician. Taking place in one of Toronto’s most beautiful and central parks, he offered his first live Canadian preview in one of his three suggested listening locations for the album (the other two being a zoo or outside of a music school). Accompanied by musicians who are close friends and collaborators (including Leslie Feist with whom he co-produced and co-wrote The Reminder and Metals), his philosophy of creating a musical family wherever he goes was created an intimate, connected atmosphere for the communal first listen of Key Change.
The day after his sunset performance in the park, Mocky sat down with Stories Behind The Songs under the same big maple tree and told us the story of the man behind the music.
Mocky: When I was a kid, my first instrument was organ, then it was saxophone, and then I got put on the drums. My brother had a drum kit and we used to watch ’80s music videos and then I would imitate the drum beats and that’s how I managed to get a handle on it. But for me, I never really fixated on one instrument – only the drums in the sense that in a band, it’s a great place for me. That’s my chosen weapon on stage. It’s the best way for me to conduct the energy. I love being a bandleader from the drum kit because it’s a great thing as a drummer to be able to just stop on a dime and be like, “Hey, that E flat Major 7 chord man, it’s gotta be D natural.” And also the primal relationship that I have to the drums is something that goes beyond the mind and it’s so rewarding.
On my records, I also play recorder and classical guitar, I compose on piano, I songwrite on guitar, I play jazz on acoustic bass – there’s a time and place for everything. When you’ve been doing different things like electronic music, producing, being a writer, playing live in every possible way you can imagine, at a certain point you kind of realize that the only real payout here is making sure that when I’m doing my thing, I’m truly enjoying myself.
M: I don’t know if I’ve ever put it into words in terms of how I got there. I have a history of accidents that shaped my musicianship.
From Saskatchewan, it was a real outsider existence. In Lumsden, Saskatchewan, which is a town of like 1,200 people and one traffic light, it was a beautiful prairie life but you barely knew about things like a record label or something.
When I came to Ontario I played in bands through my teen years, always on drums but as a sort of co-writer with the singer. I was a drummer and then I cut my finger and I couldn’t pursue jazz drums – I had to remain the funky drummer with the weird finger.
Eventually I came to Toronto and studied acoustic bass at U of T for jazz performance and that became my instrument. That opened me up to composition beyond just songwriting – like real harmony. At night time I was hosting a hip hop jam at a place called The Apothecary and in my band was a guy called Jason Beck aka Chilly Gonzales. We had a band called The Shit which was him, myself, Peaches and another singer called Sticky, and we were really into electronic music and hip hop. I couldn’t find a way forward at that time in Canada or the U.S. It was too eclectic or something. We were like the freaky guys with the weird drum machines – back then it was quite different. To even rap at all was like, shocking. In Europe and the electronic scene over there I found a place where you could do more experimental things.
Instead of New York or L.A. at the time, as Mocky, the way forward was London – the sort of epicentre of the electronic music scene at the time – and then from there, satelliting to Amsterdam and Berlin and eventually settling in Berlin as the place where, not only was there electronic music, but there was this history of live entertainment. It was like a matter of trying to fit into club culture. For me, it was just shocking. What now is EDM, it was pre-EDM, as I call it. But, I wasn’t a DJ, I was a musician and the only instrument in there was this weird mic, you know? So the only way to get into that was, I just ended up getting on the mic. I had this rapping puppet – which was one the genesis members of Puppetmastaz – this puppet and I together made the income to finally get out my first album. I had been touring and putting out 12″s and this and that but I couldn’t get an album out. So, I ended up putting it out myself and I used the money from MCing at these huge raves as a puppet to fund my own project. It kind of all took off from there. Sort of like Andy Kaufman meets Aphex Twin meets weird jazzy guy because once in a while there would be an instrument at the club and I’d play the bass or the drums. I managed to put out a few albums there and it went pretty good and I was touring. I was working with Jamie Lidell – who again, is a friend first – running in the same streets, living in Berlin, doing electronic music. [Editor’s Note: Mocky co-produced, co-wrote and also played on Jamie Lidell’s 2005 album Multiply] At that time, most of the people were doing instrumental electronic music and my music was getting more and more songwriter-like. I dropped Birds of a Feather and Saskamodie, my last jazz album, right before leaving for L.A. and just realized, okay, this could be my future.
After coming out to Big Sur to work on Metals with Feist, my wife [fashion designer Desiree Klein] and I decided to take a crazy leap of faith and move to L.A. with my son who was about a year old at the time. Basically what we’re doing is importing culture into the ruins/fertile garden that is the downtown L.A. renaissance. Much like Berlin or Detroit, there’s this crazy scene going on. People are kind of flocking there. I’ve been lucky enough to kind of stumble into a lot of expanding musical universes at the core of their big bang moment. In the last three or four years, I’ve been so lucky to be able to work with some of the most amazing, talented people. But when I told my friends in Berlin that I was moving to L.A. they thought I was crazy. They were like, “You’re going from heaven to hell. You’re going to the belly of the beast.” But, I think that beast died a long time ago and you can build out of the actual scene there. So into that, walks me and my wife Desiree and started setting up shop.
What was the process like of transitioning from electronic instruments back to more of a jazz sound?
M: On this album and the last album, I was just kind of finding a return to the way I was in Toronto – a guy going to jazz school, working with different people and turning that into a superpower again. I have to give credit to Gonzales because I think it was after my third electronic album, he was like, “My ideal next album would just be you in a room with a bunch of instruments, just composing. That’s probably the best move you could do.” And like any wise person, I listened to him. It was just such a huge relief! I was like, “Oh my god, you’re right.”
Sometimes I think we just make things more complicated for ourselves. And in that, often, is the genius, let’s be honest. I feel like what often happens with musicians is that they’ll put out one amazing album that’s groundbreaking and by the third album, it’s really tough to maintain that excitement. So it’s always been part of my game plan to continually put my neck out there and evolve and always just constantly be below the radar, able to make those moves because if you get too successful for one thing, it gets harder and harder to change. Finding this voice has been a slow process but now I feel like it’s the perfect time.
M: It’s getting there. I’m already working on the next one. This whole trip up here I’ve been jotting down titles. I’m planning to make all of the titles first and then compose it. That’s part of the concept. I’ve never done it before but that’s what I’m planning this time. Just write all of the song titles and then go to the studio and bang it out. This album is an exercise in freedom for me.
M: I don’t think so. No more than Key Change. I have ideas about it, but it’s early. Every time I make an album, there are tracks that, to me, point the way forward. Now I’m sort of hearing those sounds in an abstract way – not even a particular song, but it’s the tones, the colours – and I’m kind of mapping out this vision and over the next year I’ll try to execute it. Everything is so two-dimensional and cold on the radio, that’s why in a way, I won’t be putting electronic instruments on this album. I mean, I love electronic music, but if you can just put up some microphones and just bring the humans into the equation in this era and put that into a relevant form of some kind… I’m trying to create a kind of pathway where I feel like I contributed on the highest level.
M: I think that’s very Saskatchewan because I was influenced by certain things, Like when I play, that’s just how I play, it just has this certain sound. It wouldn’t matter what instrument you gave me, if I played it, it would sound like that. And that gets filtered into other people’s projects in different ways, whether it’s just in the writing or whether it’s playing all of the instruments or playing one instrument or helping their musicians have the right approach. When I work with other people, I insist they co-produce because I want to work with people who bring just as much to the table as I do.
It seems like collaboration is very much the bottom line for you.
M: Yeah, totally. There’s a lot of insecurity in being a musician so I’ve tried, through the years, to always create a musical family that wherever I go, there’s a kind of interconnected, organic relationship with people who care about each other. The most intense friendships are music friendships, for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s been forever, there’s a connection there, a real bond, a trust and a sense that somebody has your back when you do music. It’s more about the person playing than it is what instrument they’re playing when things are working for me, musically. I’m a real fan of the sort of Duke Ellington school of composition where you sort of compose around the people that are there. That seems like the most humane way to do things. When you’re close to somebody, then you can delve deep, you can scratch below the surface, you can maybe find ways to bring yourself into the equation and there’s a trust there. That’s why I’m not really a fan of the L.A. songwriting “wham bam, thank you ma’am” songwriting approach. It’s the one thing that they still can’t take away from us. It’s the one thing that computers can’t replace, so I figure, hang on for dear life.
M: It came to me in a dream when I was living in Toronto. I woke up with the word in my head. I called my mini label at the time Mocky Recordings. I was doing all kinds of releases under different names but always under Mocky Recordings and when I left to go to Europe, I literally got on the plane as Dominic Salole and got off Mocky and haven’t looked back.
Follow Mocky: @mockyrecordings
Upcoming Mocky Tour Dates:
July 8 – HAMILTON, ON – HAVN Gallery
July 9 – TORONTO, ON – The Drake
July 10 – MONTRÉAL, QC – Resonance
July 11 – NEW YORK, NY – Ace Hotel
July 17 – LOS ANGELES, CA – The Lyric Theatre
Additional North American dates to be announced