Monday, April 30, 2007

Daniel Johnston Interview

Daniel Johnston in London, 2005
photo: Jack Hill

By: Rich Tupica

Daniel Johnston is known for his weird and simple songs, oddball artwork and recently for The Devil & Daniel Johnston, the award-winning documentary about his life dealing with mental illness. The film is the songwriter’s biggest exposure to fame to date (you can rent it at BlockBuster!).
Unlike most hip underground artists, Johnston doesn’t mind admitting he would love to be more famous, maybe even score a pop radio hit. This is interesting because most of Johnston’s catalog is home-recorded tapes; made with very little help. His early, lo-fi tunes sound nothing like Top-40 radio shit, though somehow still managed to turn heads everywhere he played, and having Kurt Cobain wear a "Hi, How Are You?" (Johnston's classic tape) shirt to the MTV Music Awards didn't hurt.
Now that Johnston is 46 years-old, he hopes that his next record will be multi-layered and more complex, in comparison to the gritty minimal cassette tapes that made him an underground icon over 20-years ago. The sound of Johnston’s voice is also showing its age, (perhaps it’s the cigarette habit?). The once child-like tone has matured, not for the worse, it’s just different than it was back in 1983. Johnston’s long time friend Kathleen Thornberry, of the Austin band Glass Eye, has known Johnston since his early days in Texas when he was first getting noticed. Thornberry remembers describing Johnston to her friends who hadn’t yet heard his music, "He's this really great songwriter who makes his own tapes. He's sort of crazy and sounds like a little kid. That is how ‘Hi How Are You’ sounds, after all,” said Thornberry, who admits being “blown away by his songwriting genius.”
After more than two decades, Johnston is not close to being finished. He has five albums that aren’t recorded yet, a garage band with an album on the way and piles of art for sale. Daniel Johnston is a busy man with a lot of plans.
I had the pleasure of speaking with him a couple days ago. Here’s what he had to say...

Hey Daniel, how are you doing today?
“I’m doing great! Just practicing for my big MTV show on May the 7th. I’m all excited about it. ”

That’s cool, when did you find out about that?
“Well, just a couple days ago. We’re going to Canada and doing a tour later this week, and we’ll end up at MTV.”

So is it going to be a televised concert then?
“Well, I don’t exactly know yet. I guess I’ll play by myself. So I’m getting some songs together.”

What have you been up to lately?
“I’m trying to write songs, it’s hard to write them sometimes. I keep trying to write songs but it rarely happens … that I finish one. But its fun to play music and make up stuff and then when it sounds right I start writing it down and it just turns into a song.”

Do you still do a lot of your art? I know that is a big part of your life.
“Yeah, I do lots of drawings, that’s where I get my spending cash, from my drawings. They sell on the internet and I do quite well with it. I have enough money to buy my groceries and stuff.”

"Dream as you Like" Daniel's art.

What did you think about seeing yourself in The Devil & Daniel Johnston film?
“At first I didn’t know what to think, you know? I think it’s pretty funny. I think it has a sense of humor to it.”

Those old home movies featured in the film are very cool, what got you into making short films as a teen?
“When I was a kid we used to make a lot of movies on Super-8. I was even Frankenstein once in a movie I made, it was a lot of fun to make because I was a big Boris Karloff fan.”

"Satan Must Die" black marker drawing by Daniel

Do you like touring these days? Or is it not as much fun as compared to when you were younger?
“Yeah, that’s true. I was on tour for three years once… and man did it wear me out. I would much rather stay at home and record albums and stuff. We go every other month some place, so it’s not as bad as all the time.”

What bands are you into? I know you love The Beatles.
Aaaah, The Beatles! Number one with me! I love The Beatles. They changed my life. When I first heard their records when I was a senior in high school I was really a shy kid - I was … a dork. You know, I was afraid of the girls. I was really shy. But when I started collecting The Beatles albums, I started speaking in an English accent and coming on to the girls, writing songs and stuff like that.” (laughs)

Beatle Mania! Daniel in the 80s photo: Wyatt McSpadden

So did The Beatles change your life?
“They inspired me to pretend like I was The Beatles! And I started writing songs all the time. I was having a lot of fun.”

What do you remember about your first MTV performance in 1985? How did you end up on MTV that day?
“I remember a bunch of kids were getting on a truck and they said, ‘MTV is having a party! Get your guitar and c’mon! Let’s go!’ and I said, ‘O.k.!’ So we road in the truck to the party and they were serving tacos and filming us. I just held up my tape ‘Hi How Are You?’ to the camera and said, ‘Hi, my name’s Daniel Johnston and this is my tape’ (laughs) and before I knew it I was on MTV. Later that day, after they filmed me a bit, somebody else came and said, ‘Hey Daniel, they want you to play at Liberty Lunch tonight,’ and that was the big show, at Liberty Lunch. That night I did three songs in between two of the other bands and one of the songs was featured in the show. ‘Broken Dreams’ was the name of the song.”

Folkie! An early Daniel Johnston promo shot

How did you feel after the big show?
“I couldn’t believe it, you can’t imagine how, you know how backward I was… I really didn’t have many friends and then when I went to college I had a lot of friends, but I was trying to be an artist and writing songs all the time and making tapes for my friends. So when I got on MTV I really felt like I had made it in the big time. I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy. It was a really rewarding experience. I was working at McDonalds at the time so you could imagine. A newspaper article called me a ‘man-child,’ in the daily section of the University Paper. My manager at McDonalds saw it and they were all impressed. (laughs) I worked in the lobby cleaning tables and taking out the garbage was my job! (laughs) When I was working people would come in and say, ‘Hey! Aren’t you the guy on MTV?’”

Fries with that? Daniel at McDonalds

So, Austin, Texas was basically going Daniel-crazy, huh?
“It was great! I used to be mentioned in the gossip column all the time. I was like littered with fame in Austin, doing shows and stuff. I remember I used to run across the street when I was working at McDonalds and getting a newspaper and seeing if my name was mentioned again. I was that crazy about it. And usually I was! They were always writing about me. They were just treating me like I was Dylan or something. I was famous in Austin, Texas. I was the 1985 songwriter of the year, folk singer of the year. I was also in a number of other categories too, including number five avant garde band, or something like that!” (laughs)

At first, you started selling and giving away your tapes? Is that right?
“I was giving away tapes at the beginning just to try to get famous in town. I gave tapes away for a long time and then I started playing out. So, the first time I played out the place was packed after I put some advertising signs all over town, right, and the applause was just thunderous. It was from the very start, very successful. I took it seriously and it was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun doing interviews.”

Your garage band Danny & the Nightmares, are you doing another album with them?
Danny & the Nightmares are now working on a new album called ‘Death of Satan’ and we’re really excited and we’ll probably have it out in three or four months. We’re working on it now so we’re really excited."

Daniel, April of 2007. photo: Tim Broddin

What label is going to release the new Danny & the Nightmares album?
“Either my dad, who’s my manager, he might put it out or Alternative Tentacles. I’d love to be on that, Butthole Surfers were on that, it’d be pretty cool!”

Why did you start drawing the eyeballs everywhere as a teenager?
“Well, I love The Beatles and in ‘I am the Walrus’ it says, ‘Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.’ In my perverted mind, I loved that poetry so much that I kept drawing dead dog’s eyeballs all the time. Like it said in the movie, I used to graffiti dead dog’s eyeballs all over the high school, like some kind of cult following or something. It came from the John Lennon song for sure. John Lennon was the greatest inspiration to me and when he died it really hurt my feelings. I felt that I had to carry on. I know it sounds silly, but that’s how it goes. Me and my friends loved John Lennon very much and The Beatles of course.”

Daniel painting By: Denise LaFrance

Will there be a new Daniel solo album anytime soon?
“Oh, for sure! I have about five albums already written that I haven’t recorded yet. I was recording a new album with Brian who I recorded ‘Lost and Found’ and ‘Rejected Unknown’ with. But during the recording of the album he started building a studio and was unable to come out and record me more and the album sort of fell all apart. I was really depressed for a while. I had a bunch of un-produced songs and left over songs, I don’t even remember what all we did. So it’s like an album that fell apart, it could have been. A couple more months and it would have happened.”

Well, people want to hear it. So I hope it comes out.
“I’d like to get something out there, you know? Get something released. It takes so long to get a record out. When ‘Rejected Unknown’ came out it was like four or five labels that said they would put it out and then they dropped it, until it finally came out officially. ‘Lost and Found’ took forever too. It’s too long to wait. I like to get stuff out there that’s fresh, that’s what I like, right away. Record something and then in the stores, so I can enjoy it too.”

That’s how most of your early albums were. You recorded them and people would hear them within days! You were probably still feeling a lot of those lyrics.
“That’s right! Exactly! I made those tapes for friends, you know, ‘Songs of Pain’ and all that. They had no idea that someday they’d be… semi-famous as they are, perhaps. My friends made me feel famous just by making a big fuss over it. We’d always have parties and pretend we were on a talk show and stuff. I felt more famous than I do now, to tell you the truth."

Kurt Cobain wearing a Daniel shirt!

What is something that you want to accomplish that you haven’t yet?
“I’d like to really be famous. I’d like to have a hit. I’d like to walk in a studio and have the time to do it. Most of the time when I recorded it was always on a first take. Everything from ‘1990’ to ‘Artistic Vice’, to ‘Fun’ even, was like one take and that was it. The most produced album was probably ‘Lost and Found.’ Or maybe ‘Fear Yourself,’ which was recorded by the band Sparklehorse, they really produced that a lot. They spent a lot of their time. I recorded it for like four days, I would lay down the basic tracks and then they worked on it for like four months. I was so impressed with them, I was really happy. Then they said, ‘Lets do another one next year,' and for the past three years I have been working on a new one to do with them and I hope we can get together soon to record it with Sparklehorse, Mark Linkous’ band.”

Daniel Johnston in his room photo: Sony Pictures

To: Daniel, Bill and Dick Johnston
Kathleen Thornberry, Jeff Tartakov
and Denise LaFrance


Official Daniel webpage:
BUY some of Daniel's ART!
JOIN the Daniel Message Board!
BUY the Devil & Daniel Johnston DVD direct from Dan!
Glass Eye - Kathleen Thornberry's band
Sparklehorse on Myspace!
Offical Daniel fansite!
Stress Records webpage!
Daniel Johnston VIDEOS on YOUTUBE!

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Mark Sultan, a.k.a BBQ Interview! Sultanic Verses is Near!

BBQ enjoying a smoke photo: Theresa Kereakes
Mark “BBQ” Sultan might be the best songwriter playing rock-n-roll music today. He can write an oddball song about a “fish fight” and then turn out a genuine love song without skipping a beat.
Sultan has been playing in great rock bands since the mid ‘90s. The Spaceshits and Les Sexareenos were two of the best garage bands to ever come out of Canada. After those groups called it quits Sultan began touring the country playing solo in a one-man band under the name BBQ. More recently he teamed up with his old Spaceshits friend Khan to form The King Khan & BBQ Show, who are known for their wild shows, but more importantly, killer rock-n-roll albums.
Leaving the BBQ alias behind, his next full-length album “Sultanic Verses” is tagged with his full name Mark Sultan. The LP is set for release on In the Red Records in early May 2007. “This record is the beginning of a departure for Mark, I think,” said Larry Hardy, owner of In the Red. “All the early rock-n-roll elements like soul, R&B, doo-wop are still there, but this one goes other places. There are touches of psychedelia and abstraction that make this one fairly different. One song even reminded me of Eno! There are also additional musicians, which makes this sound different from his one-man band recordings,” said Hardy. Sultan had a few minutes in between his tour dates to answer a few questions about his past, present and future, check it out.

What city did you grow up in, and what kind of music were you into as a teenager?
“I grew up in Montreal. Great city. I mean, it still is my city to an extent. Um, music.... At thirteen I just got off a metal kick, stuff like Venom and shit, and got caught up in punk. Then onto hardcore, then more garage-y and rock-n-roll things. All stuff that I still listen to, except for a lot of the metal.”

When did you first start to write songs? What were those like?
“I was really, really into listening to music and shit, always humming tunes, but I guess I started actually writing songs when I was about 14 years-old. The first one I can remember writing for a band I was in was called Formication, about freaking on acid, pretty dumb.”

What was the first band you played in? What kind of music was it?
“(laughs) The first 'band' I had was called The Biffs. I was the drummer, but couldn't play at all. It was awesome. It was like a mix between spazz-core, improv-noise and Jan & Dean, retarded.”

Your music today has some 50s rock & doo-wop influences, can you recommend some stuff that you have been into recently?
“Recently what I have been into doesn't necessarily reflect on the music I make. I love those influences you talk about, almost always have. I have always listened to lots of stuff besides that: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Eddie Cochran, Les Rallizes Denudes, T. Rex, Alice Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Bad Brains, Simply Saucer, Irma Thomas, Ornette Coleman, Ike & Tina, Q65, Silver Apples, Santo & Johnny, The Music Machine, always The Falcons, lots of obligatory 60s psych and garage comps, R&B and doo-wop comps, all good shit. Mostly all have been with me a long time. But I am limited to what I can do as a one-man band set up.”

BBQ, playing with the King Khan & BBQ Show photo: Canderson

How did The Spaceshits meet? Is this where you first met King Khan?
“From what I remember, this is the tale, although my memory is horrendous and I embellish without realizing. I knew Khan and his pals through other friends. They already had started a band, and I was drinking with a couple of those guys at a bar one night and they said they were looking for a singer. I had never sung before, but I was drunk and it sounded like fun. This was, from what I can remember, 1995 or late 1994. Khan actually only started playing bass a few months after we started. Although he might have been in the band before I started singing, but originally we played shows with this dude Stinky B. on bass.”

Sultan Records, what did you think of releasing music on your own? And are you ever going to put out anything else on that label?
“It was fun having a record label... When it was first started, I ran it with Choyce (Les Sexareenos, CPC Gangbangs.) It was for fun, but also a way to get good bands out. We started with good distro, but by the end it became disastrous because we left it in the wrong hands while Les Sexareenos went on tour. Oh well, I would love to put more stuff out, but I don't have much time and I think there are a good amount of labels right now doing a good job.”

Les Sexareenos!

How did you end up playing drums in Les Sexareenos after The Spaceshits?
“Well, I had been actually playing drums for a few years before that, before I started 'singing', so I was excited to do it. When The Spaceshits were on their last legs, I had already been talking to Danny (then Spaceshits drummer) and Choyce about doing something. So we did. And it sounded great, so much fun! Yes, I played drums, but I also sang a lot, and wrote a lot of songs in a style that I loved and still love.”

What inspired you to start performing as a one-man-band? Do you prefer performing that way rather than having a traditional band line up?
"There wasn't much inspiration, per se... I just needed to get some songs out there, and I really need to do things fast because I am very impatient. So, I just did it myself. And because I wanted to still play live right away, I figured out how to do it in a 'one-man band' set-up. And to answer your other question, I would rather not play by myself for various reasons."

Devil with the gold dress! The KK & BBQ Show! photo: Canderson

When did you and Khan start writing the songs that would eventually be on the debut King Khan & BBQ Show LP? How do you two go about writing songs?
“I would go visit Europe now and again and Khan lived in a town called Kassel in Germany, which was also the home of my first label as 'BBQ'. So we would go play music in The Shrines' practice-space just for kicks when we were bored or whatever. I think we were doing me on
drums, him on guitar for fun, probably switching shit up. I know that I was practicing my
one-man shit once and he picked up a guitar and it sounded great. And we played shows where we would both be one-man bands on stage and then we would join forces at the end. Anyway, we started making up songs very quickly and just started recording right away. I like it like that. As for writing now, we either come up with shit on our own and then get together to make it better or just get together to make songs. Unfortunately, we haven't been concentrating on writing songs, mostly just touring. That's dumb.”

Touring as the King Khan & BBQ Show, from what I've seen, can get pretty crazy with Khan! Is it fun to have a band member that is willing to put on a Tina Turner dress and shake his thang on stage?
“Yeah, it's great. I'm pretty laid-back at this point so if he wants to go bananas I'm very grateful. I get satisfaction from playing the songs and, at the same time, I can see a show! Hahaha... He's great. I am happy that we have pushed ourselves to be at opposite ends of the spectrum for the show's sake: me the curmudgeon, him the insaniac. It works and is fun to watch, yin and yang. And, yes, there have been insane shows, more so than with any other band. I think the thing is that we allow ourselves to be put in retarded situations and revel in it. Things can get out of control real quick, but we thrive on chaos.”

SSSssh! BBQ's main-man, King Khan! photo: Theresa Kereakes

So, there has been some great bands coming-out of Canada in the past few years, any newer Canadian bands that you could recommend?
“Bands in Canada? To tell you the truth, I am not around all that much so my views are probably biased towards friends more than anything. And I'm pretty Montreal-centric. Montreal has a shit-load of great bands.”

How often do you write new songs?
“I write them when I feel like it, no process. I don’t know, when I decide it's time to pick up a guitar, I do. I used to do it more often, but usually if I make up a bunch at once I forget them or they get lost or erased or whatever. So now I am very careful.”

Canada's Finest
! A Demons Claw & BBQ
photo: Theresa Kereakes

So far, what has been your proudest moment as a musician?

“I'm just proud I get to travel and meet great folks and do interviews like this. I'm proud when people appreciate what I do.”

The new LP, 'Sultanic Verses', how would you describe this album to someone who has never heard a BBQ album?
“Well, if they have never heard a BBQ record, this might not be the most appropriate place to start. It's maybe half one-man band style stuff, but even then there are a few overdubs. I named this shit 'Mark Sultan' because of these reasons: With 'BBQ' it was live and I played as the one-man band. On this, you get some of that, but there are also songs where I played all the instruments traditionally and even had pals come in to add stuff. That being said, it's pretty similar to the BBQ stuff, but there are some different sounds on it, too. Rock-n-roll.”

Do you plan to do a solo tour for this record?
“I hope to, but I think it would mean getting a band together, and I don’t know how to do that at this point.”

In the spotlight, BBQ with King Khan! photo: Stian Martinsen

How did you record this album?
“Some of it was recorded by me in Berlin, some in Montreal by Choyce and myself. All on 4-track cassette, all mixed by me. Mastered by Jay Reatard.”

Are the Mind Controls going to ever put out another album or single? Or was that a one time thing?
“It was a one-month project. We were almost going to go on tour, but everybody got too busy. We were also going to do another record, but I busted my wrist. I'll probably end up doing something by myself in the same vein.”

Howlin! BBQ making noise! photo: Paul Galipeau

Do you plan on playing music forever, or do you have something else in mind for your future?
“I don't think I could actually do this forever. It's difficult. What I would really like to do is to finish a few books I have started and concentrate on that kind of stuff, but always play music on some level.”

Without giving away a plot, can you tell us what kind of novels you've started?
"They're both basically about the vulgarity of existence. Eeesh, sounds retarded. Oh well, anyway, I have always written in some form or another. Now, it's cathartic and keeps me from doing bad things."

What can we expect next from Mark Sultan?
“I'm recording an album this spring with a great bunch of guys people may know from Toronto and also a hardcore album with some pals in Montreal. Look for a bunch of new King Khan & BBQ stuff this year, too.”

What's one thing you want to accomplish before you die?
“I want to travel the world and make the most out of my life, eventually settling down in a forest or jungle with the woman I love.”

BBQ is keepin' busy! photo: Christina Wozniak

Mark Sultan "Sultanic Verses" LP (In the Red)
Available in EARLY MAY 2007!

Sultanic LINKS:
Visit :
Offical Webpage
Mark Sultan on Myspace
Email Mark at:
King Khan & BBQ Show on Myspace
In the Red Records on the web!

MUST SEE! Photo Sites:
Theresa K - PUNK PICS!!! - (Great site for all that's Punk!)
Canderson Photos! (Lots of Great Band Pics!!!)
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