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
also: Kathleen Thornberry, Jeff Tartakov
and Denise LaFrance
DANIEL JOHNSTON LINKS!
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!
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.