Daniel Johnston is a singer, songwriter and artist. His drawings have been exhibited internationally, whilst his songs have been covered by an enviable list of admirers: Yo La Tengo, Tom Waits, Sparklehorse and The Flaming Lips to name a few. Daniel’s collaborated with Jad Fair and Sonic Youth, been commissioned by Matt Groening and lauded by David Bowie. Kurt Cobain wore his iconic t-shirt throughout the majority of 1992. So far, so hipster-luringly good.
"Some dismiss his output as a curiosity, even accusing his fans of fetishizing mental illness. I would urge the cynics to re-consider."
Yet Daniel Johnston divides opinion. Daniel struggles with his mental health and his songs and drawings are often painfully vulnerable, naïve and unreliably realised. Consequently, some dismiss his output as a curiosity, even accusing his fans of fetishizing mental illness. I would urge the cynics to re-consider.
Although depression acts as a catalyst ( “Drove those demons / Out of my head / With an organ and a pencil full of lead”) and a ready point of observation ( “I lost my head for a while / Was off my rocker outta line, outta whack”), his work is underscored, rather than defined, by his illness. To be distracted by his depression, would be to undervalue his talent. Daniel Johnston is a master of melody and a deft lyricist. He offers a unique voice, informed by an unusual perspective.
Our conversation is tangential. Questions are hit, others are missed and answers often veer off into unexpected territory. Daniel often trails off mid-sentence; forgetting his thoughts and losing his point. Yet he is consistently good natured, warm and enthusiastic (note the number of exclamation marks in the following interview); possessing a refreshing lack of pretensions. On hearing that I play bass Daniel excitedly explains that he is looking for a bass player and asks me to send him a tape. With my heart firmly in my mouth I regretfully remind him that I live in London and we conclude that it’s perhaps a little far from Texas. Regardless, I haven’t stopped grinning for days. Or practising.
Daniel Johnston is touring Europe throughout April 2012, coinciding with an exhibition of his art-work in Madrid.
Hello, may I speak to Daniel please?
This is Daniel.
Hi Daniel, this is Jessica.
Well, hi there Jessica, how are you? Where are you calling from?
I’m calling from London.
London? I was just wondering if I was playing there anytime soon . . .
Yes, I think you are playing at the Union Chapel.
Yes that rings a bell.
You’re doing a fair few shows at the moment – how’s that going?
Yes, I just got back from someplace . . . I can’t remember. I have a memory problem. It’s the medication they have me on. I have to talk to a doctor about that. [Laughing] Sometimes I think of a lyric and I have to find a pen, then when I’ve found the pen I have completely forgotten the lyric.
"I’ve always wanted to be a comic book maker. When I was young I knew I had to be something, or I’d end up working in a factory, you know?"
Was it SXSW?
Maybe. Now let’s see. February, April, March. Does April come before March?
No, April comes after March.
[Laughs] In which case no, I don’t think I did play SXSW.
I understand your debut graphic novel – “Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book Of Musical Greatness” – has just been released. Can you tell me a bit about it?
Yeah! It’s really cool! It’s about Space Ducks. They even made a cartoon of it. It came out pretty well. I’m really happy.
You’ve been into comic books for a long time. Is it something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
Oh yeah. I’ve always wanted to be a comic book maker. When I was young I knew I had to be something, or I’d end up working in a factory, you know? Well, I drew all the time so I thought: that’s what I went to be! I want to make comics! I thought I’d do that. I was living in Austin and I was also making music; tapes for my friends. Well the next thing I knew I was on MTV and I was a real big star! I take my comic books on the road. I go on the road with my brother; it’s really great. Instead of getting paid I get every meal paid for and I can buy any comic book I want. We drive around and stop at all these Comic Book stores. It’s really, really great.
Are you more excited about seeing your work in comic book form than on the walls of prestigious galleries?
Oh yeah! But I make more money from albums. My Dad manages all that. I get a bit of extra cash for my art. I keep that.
I have one of you pictures on my wall. It’s called “Away We Goo” – is it a reference to Sonic Youth?
Goo? Hmmm. Goo?
Yes, Goo [or perhaps it’s pronounced as an elongated “go”?]
I don’t think so, but I do love Sonic Youth. I love those guys. I recorded with some of them. They’re good guys.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of people over the years.
I recorded with [ pause] I forget who. I play live with a whole group of different musicians. We’re doing a lot of shows. It’s really great. I get to meet a lot of fans, a lot of really good looking girls – it’s cool! You meet a lot of different people. A lot of people come backstage. One time this girl came back and she looked just like Bettie Page! I ran out of the back door. I completely freaked out [laughs] and when I came back inside Bettie Page was gone.
One of my favourite collaborations you’ve done is the version of “Speeding Motorcycle” with Yo La Tengo on WFMU. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Yeah. Well I was having some weird experiences when I was writing that, then it all went strange.
Yo La Tengo featured in the documentary made about you – “The Devil And Daniel Johnston” – how do you feel about the film now?
It was cool when we made the film because we went out to restaurants a lot. We ate Mexican food. I went to a restaurant recently with Matt Groening. Do you know him? He made The Simpsons. And he asked me to work for him. So I’ll be working with Matt Groening! They are doing the story of my life now! Did you know that? That’s funny. I think that it should be funny.
If you could choose anyone to play you in the film, who would you choose?
Dali I think. Yes that would be funny. If Dalí made a film about me, that would be great.
I have a canvas bag with “hi how are you” on it. At a party someone approached me because he also loved your music and later asked me to join his band. You inspired us! What inspires you?
Really? Wow. That’s really cool! What do you play?
I play bass.
You do? That’s great. There’s not many female bassists. That’s really cool. We are looking for a bass player at the moment. Will you send me a tape? Wait... where are you?
London. You’re in Texas?
Yeah. It’s maybe a bit far. Texas is great. I’ve lived here for, like, ever. I grew up in West Virginia then we came to Texas.
So... what inspires you?
Well my brother had lots of records – Queen, Elton John, The Carpenters. He had a room downstairs and I had a table. And he used to play records and I used to draw.
So you used to draw along to the music playing?
What did you draw?
You know Betty and Veronica from the Archie comics? Those girls were so sexy, I used to draw them.
Going back to music, if your music could affect people in a certain way what would it be?
I hope it’s entertaining. I try to tall a few jokes. I want to keep people entertained. I want to entertain them enough to play a record more than once!
Finally, what next?
I am recording with my friends – Paul Leary and Bill Anderson. It’s a lot of fun. I am making some comics based on World War Two... and super-heroes. Now I have my own house I’m really happy. I have my pills for depression and they seem to be working. But I try to keep busy. When I’m not busy I do get depressed and – you know – it hurts. So I keep busy and then: I’m happy.
Honey I Sure Miss You