Songs of Pain: Daniel Johnston Interview
So it’s about 20 minutes before I’m supposed to do my interview with songwriting legend Daniel Johnston when my girlfriend Kim walks into the Comet Tavern. I’m drinking a Mac & Jacks African Amber and trying to get all of my notes and shit organized because I’m still under the misguided idea that I may actually be able to gear the upcoming conversation with the manic depressive musician into some direction of my choosing. Already, nothing is going as planned.
I hand Kim a DV camera and inform her that she will be filming the interview and then ask her to watch all of my equipment and notes while I run to QFC to get film. I found out the day before that I would not be recieving the Digital SLR camera that I had ordered weeks prior (this situation will be covered in another article) and so I brought an old manual Cannon AE1 for which I had accidentally bought the wrong film, in my frenzy to reach the venue on time. I purchased new film and rushed back to the bar only to find out that the Camera battery was dead anyway, so I was fucked. No camera to go with the photopass. Another opportunity lost, but such is the way of MonsterFresh.
As soon as we walk across the street to the venue, Neumos Crystal Ball Reading Room, I spot Daniel’s brother/tour manager, Dick Johnston whom I recognized from the documentary. I shook his hand and he led me around the building so that we could get things rolling. If you have seen the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, you may remember Dick as the brother who’s ribs were broken by Daniel on Christmas. He set up the interview for me and is working as Daniel’s tour manager. Their father is Daniel’s manager and their sister Margie Johnston has been known to help with the management of his art. The family is very involved in Daniel’s finances in such ways as insuring that he is paid sufficiently, that his rent is paid, that he has groceries, etc.
We turn the corner and I see Daniel with his head lowered to the ground and smoking a cigarette. The front of his hair is yellowing from nicotine, he is wearing a faded black Spiderman T-shirt and a windbreaker, and he seems to be oblivious to who he is and what that actually means. He is standing very nonchalant outside of the building, as if he were unnoticible, when we approach. An employee of Neumos asks Daniel if he and/or Dick need anything in the way of food. Daniel has mentioned in the past that he is trying to lose the weight that he has gained over the years, no doubt due to his medication, so he makes sure to specify a “DIET” Coke in his request for a cheeseburger and fries. She says that she will go get some from a place down the street and, when Daniel implies that he will go up there himself, his brother/manager reminds him that he has a sound check to do and ushers him into the building as I follow behind.
At this point, I haven’t said shit and I am holding a vinyl copy of a live radio broadcast of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I picked it up at my favorite local record store for Daniel, knowing his infatuation with monsters, and figured that I could use it now as an ice-breaker, considering that he didn’t even seem to react to the fact that I was there or wonder why. I say hello, inform him that I was there to do an interview, and give him the record. He responded with something to the effect of, “Man, this is really cool. I love Frankenstein!“. Dick informs Daniel that it will take a minute for soundcheck and that now would be a good time to do an interview, so Daniel agrees and finds a round table in the corner of the venue next to a bunch of trashcans to sit at. As I walk across the room to find a chair of my own, I notice that a couple of fans have lurked in but are standing back respectfully. I pull up my chair, sit down in the Chip & Peppers I scored at a thrift store, and immediately realize that I’m sitting in gum. Not old hard gum, mind you, but fresh sticky warm gum and it’s all over my ass. Fuck it! Just hit “RECORD“. We’re already in it. Let’s do this thing.
Daniel Johnston: Hey Dick, could you get me a Diet Coke?
Dick Johnston: She said she’s working on it Daniel!
Oh, I mean, do they have anything to drink at the bar? Soda Pop or something?
She said she was gonna get you one Daniel.
*Laughing* Where is she? I mean, at the bar. I just need something to drink right now, that’s all.
DEAD C: That’s fine.
*noticing my notes* I see you’ve done your research, huh?
*Holding up the record I gave him*
Thank you for the Frankenstein album. I LOVE Frankenstein.
I saw that today and I was like, “I better pick that up“. I know you’re a big fan.
So, it’s kind of interesting; when you were recording your Yip/Jump album, you were doing that at your brother Dick’s, right?
*He nods as the woman from Neumos places a can of Diet Coke on the table in front of him*
And, so back then, your family wasn’t as supportive.
But now, your family’s really, really involved in everything you do?
Uh, huh. Uh, huh.
Is that, to you, kind of like a poetic irony?
I really don’t know. I really don’t know what you said. But, y’know… *shakes head* I don’t know.
Your family’s really supportive of you now though, right?
…Of your music?
I heard something about you maybe doing something with Alternative Tentacles and you were also talking about a Christmas Album. Did anything happen with either of them?
Uh…what was the question again?
I read something where you just talked about possibly doing an album with Alternative Tentacles and…
Mm hmmm. Yeah, well we’re working on an album called Death of Satan with my group called Danny and the Nightmares. We’ve been working on it for about a year and we’re looking forward to, y’know, eventually releasing it this year.
And that’s gonna be on that label?
Mm hmm. That’s the label we’re shooting for, so we hope we can get it, yeah.
You’ve mentioned a Christmas album, are you still thinking about doing that?
Yeah, a Christmas album. We were were thinking about doing a Christmas album. Well, I had the fantasy of doing a Christmas album with The Butthole Surfers but, it never came around. But one of my producers always wanted to do a Christmas album.
Do you still talk to Gibby (Haynes from The Butthole Surfers)?
Yeah, I’ve seen him around. Yeah, I’ve seen him.
Um, I know you’ve made a lot of films a long time ago…
…a lot of short films. And you have a lot of interest in art and music; do you do anything with the films still?
Uhhhh…. Yeah, well we have been making some videos with the group and stuff. And y’know, the movie came out… last year, I guess. But, other than that, we’ve been doing a few videos that haven’t been finished yet.
After you saw the movie- I know you’ve seen it (The Devil And Daniel Johnston) quite a few times now.
Did it make you want to keep documenting your life or did it make you, kind of, want to slow down? Because they had so much of your life at once. That must have been a lot to watch.
Just happened, over in an instant. It’s like my life is over the minute they put it on the show. *laughing uncomfortably*</span Sure was embarrasing.
But it was kind of funny. I think it has a sense of humor. It’s more like me sitting right here talking to you now. you’re probably thinking, “Oh, what an idiot.“-
I was an idiot in the film. That’s how I felt, y’know. But I thought it had a sense of humor. Even though they’re laughing at me, at least they’re laughing.
You see, I didn’t see it like that. It was really exposed but, as far as if you see it that way… I’ve been in a mental ward too, y’know.
Yeah, yeah. I know… boy was that hard to do. I was in a mental hospital for 5 years of my life. And I wasn’t writing, and I wasn’t even drawing that much. It was just a desperate attempt to have a cigarette by the (end of) the whole thing.
We had cigarettes when I was in there-
So that was nice.
They provided cigarettes?
Uh, no. They had a little room… a little area.
Yeah. Well, I didn’t smoke until I was staying in one place and they said, “Here’s a cigarette- Smoke break.” And they would give us cigarettes. So-
That’s how I started too.
-I started smoking just for the heck of it. And then when I went to a different one, no cigarettes. Y’know? And I was like- Every time I’d get a carton of cigarettes, I gave everybody cigarettes. I was like Mr. Popular. And then when I ran out of cigarettes NO ONE would give ME a cigarette. So that just goes to show you… *laughs*
Yeah, they told me I was borderline narcissistic and hypomanic.
*He nods and takes a swig off of his soda can*
And um… the medication. That must have made it difficult for you to write. When did you finally-
Well, they were just experimenting on me like a guinea pig. I mean they didn’t even talk. The doctors never talked to me. They just kept shoving pills down our throats, y’know. When I finally did get out and get the right medication- It’s been the longest time… and I am a manic depression. I have severe- (or) HAD severe depression. But because of the right medication, it’s been about ten, fifteen years now, and I’ve been on top of things and haven’t had to go back to a hospital. So I really am grateful for that.
It’s pretty good stuff I get. I get some anti-depressants. The first time I got it, I was bedridden for a year, thinking I was damned by god or something. Right? And then they gave me the Elavil anti-depressant. I was up the next day, climbed up the hill to my old piano and I started writing songs right away. And, first thing I knew, I went to New York and recorded my album 1990.
That’s a great album too.
‘cuz I listen to a lot of the early stuff…
Were you recording those albums, like Hi, How are you?, Were you just recording them on a tape recorder.
Because it sounds like on 1990, the production changed and you could hear everything really well.
Mmm hmmm. *nods*
Is that the moment that you felt like you just broke through the medication? When you went up there and played.
Yeah. You mean… to New York?
Well, yeah. I mean, you call it a “Lost Year“, right?
After that… (I’m wondering) what that moment is where you felt like you could do that again.
Yeah. I just started writing again *snaps* You know, right away. It comes down to medication. And I tell everyone in the Rock N Roll business that do drugs- Speed, and everything else… get high on marijuana and everything. If they really want to be a Rock N Roller, they oughta go to a doctor and ask them for some antidepressants, or different kind of pills, for whatever their ill is. And you get a lot better buzz off prescription medicine. More than smoking marijuana all the time, y’know.
But it’s the truth. I feel great a lot of the times and I don’t get depressed anymore like I used to, which is a real miracle.
I also read something about a film that wasn’t a documentary. You had some people (who) were talking about making and actual… like… a movie.
And you had said that you would maybe want to star in it? What’s the deal with that?
Yeah. I hope to make more movies and I wanted to direct my own movie, y’know, for fun. That’s what I plan to do.
You’re also into a lot of comics. Are you interested in the Iron Man movie that’s coming out at all, or are you not even into Iron Man very much?
Oh, I love Iron Man. They wanted me to draw the drawing for the movie.
*nods* For the poster. Y’know? So I did a bunch of them. I don’t think they’ll be able to use ‘em. I mean, if they like them, they could but I’m sure they could get someone to do better than the ones I did. I don’t know, but… it’s like a new Iron Man movie. And then, on top of that, they designed a shoe-
*I stare at his plain white shoes*
*smiling* These aren’t it
*Laughing* Oh, Okay.
But they want me to design a shoe with my drawings in it.
*We both laugh*
What will they think of next?
Oh, okay. Nice.
*reaching into his pocket* I can’t smoke right here?
KIM (GF): Yeah, I think you have to go outside.
So, I know you’re a huge Beatles fan.
Songs like Greivances kind of sound a little more like Bob Dylan. Do you listen to a lot of Dylan?
Oh, Bob Dylan’s right up there with all my heroes. That’s for sure.
So, when you talk about Jack Kirby, you talk about someone whos work wasn’t as good as his other work-
-but you could still see the-
Oh, I’m a die hard fan of Kirby. I just got back, I had almost $500 worth of Kirby comics and books I bought at the comic book store here in town (Seattle) and uh…. so I do love Kirby *laughs* It’s like the Beatles too, y’know. I can’t get enough. I got all the bootlegs and stuff, and I can never get enough.
Do you think it’s the same kind of thing with your early recordings? ‘Cuz I still listen to ‘em and even though they’ve become digital and are on CDs.
Even though you don’t have the studio, you can still hear the music come through. And then you get to something like 1990 where the production shows what you were doing with a little bit better sound.
*reaches for cigarettes again*
And then nowadays, when you do songs like your song The Beatles it’s really confident and the production is up there. Do you think you have the same quality (as Kirby) and that’s why people still want to listen to those old recordings, even though they were made so lo-fi?
Well. *slams back and tosses soda can* I’m trying to get better production, y’know.
I recorded with Paul leary and we did the album called Fun, on Atlantic. We’re thinking about doing another album: Fun 2. Y’know, the second Fun album. And I’m planning top do some recording with Mark Linkous again of the band Sparklehorse. I’ve been working on that for a few years too, so…
So that’s a sequel to the first Sparklehorse album…
That’s right. That’s right, there’s a lot of different projects in the making.
*grabs cigarette out and puts it back into the pack*
It’s just what the medication was, right? Because when you were doing shows for a while you would go off of the meds.
Is that because you didn’t feel like you could do ‘em without them?
But when you got the right ones you felt like you could?
Uh… *shrugs* yeah….I don’t think I’d ever like, re-record. Unless I did like a greatest hits and then I’d like to make some new arrangements, y’know.
Fan (behind me): Yeah, fucking awesome.
*laughing* That’d be cool.
[At this point, Daniel is holding his smokes and is shaking a bit again, so I know it's probably time to wind down]
I know you work on comics and you work on maybe getting comic books. But your art- You sell it so fast.
So you don’t really have these steps or back catalog. But you have a lot of, you know…the devil in your pictures. Do you look at that (Satan) as the opposite of art? Do you look at art as your spirituality? Or as just like a medium to express yourself?
*tapping Kools on table & nodding contemplatively*
Is that how you see your artwork?
It’s the same kind of thing. You know, I’ll draw cartoons for a while, then I’ll play music for a while, then I’ll watch a movie or two, then I’ll… eat a bunch of food. Then I’ll play some more music. Then I’ll draw a little bit. Then I’ll watch another movie. That’s my day, all by myself. Except, unless my band gets together to do some recording on the weekends. And then we go off on little tours like this. We’ve got 3 more shows and I’m having a pretty good time, y’know. I just hope that everything can work out right so I can record the albums that I want to, and stuff like that. And we get some pretty good crowds too. Sell out crowds too, y’know, so… *shrugs again*
Well, yeah. You sold out Portland and I don’t think that people are just coming to see you because of what you used to make. From what I’ve heard, your material is still really good, it’s still vital.
Well, it’s getting ancient. I’ve come along way from playing the chord organ. But, I really like working with Brian Beattie. He’s got some really cool music.
So do you have a lot of stuff lined up for the next couple albums then?
Yeah. Yeah, we have one more album with Brian Beattie called Rarely with some rare tracks and each tracks is gonna be like, super produced. Real- Something tricky about it. You know, something really cool. He’s got a lot of it done already and that might be the next release, with Brian. And like I said, the new album with Danny and the Nightmares, the Death of Satan (that) we’ve been working on for a long time. It’s kind of a scary album.
In what, with just like, the lyrics or the music too.
The lyrics AND the music. There’s like overdubs and the wrong lyrics and all kinds of things about it… and y’know, fragments of Beatles songs and stuff like that. It’s pretty scary
Well, thanks for talking with me.
Yeah, thanks a lot. I sure appreciate it.
*we shake hands*
Thanks for the album.
I know you want to get a cigarette.
Yeah, that’s right.
*heads out towards door*
I sat in a piece of gum there.
Kim: Did you?
*laughing* Yeah, I totally did.
*overhearing* You sat on a piece of gum?
Oh, sorry about that.
Oh, it’s all good.
I follow Daniel back outside but I leave the camera turned off. I thought of moving the interview outside just minutes into it, so that he could smoke but I don’t know if that really would have made much of a difference beyond adding the distraction of swarming fans into the equation. We did talk a little more outside, however. When I brought up his appearance on Kimya Dawson’s Hidden Vagenda album, Daniel said that he loves her stuff and when he signed my 100 Deadliest Karate Moves book, he said, “I prefer Kung-Fu myself”. He invinted Kim and I to go hang out after the show backstage and we let him get back to smoking and talking with fans.
I researched quite a bit before doing this interview but Daniel is still always going to be a bit of a wild card. I also tried to intentionally avoid entering into certain areas of conversation that I felt may be “too safe” because many of those topics have been adressed in other interviews. I quickly became aware that his answers to these same questions, however, often seem to be inconsistent. In an interview he did with Mondo 2000, while he was in a mental ward, Johnston said the following: “Captain America will return. In the flesh. In the Great Tribulation there will be a great Captain America who will save many from total doom.” Later, however, in another interview with Crimewave, when asked about his claims that Captain America is “real“, he attempted to clarify by saying, “In my theory what I mean is that… they exist on sort of a realm, especially for children… imagination. You know, cartoon characters and things children believe in, they exist. Just like Santa Claus I guess.” He was obivously more lucid and analytical in the later interview and even clearly articulated and reflected about his alternate states of mind and opportunities lost. “I turn down Elektra. It was really stupid and it was because I was afraid of Metallica. And that’s the truth, I was dumb…..Steven Spielberg tried to get me to sign with him and I told whoever it was on the phone that I didn’t want to be ET and that was the end of that… I could’ve been on Steven Spielberg’s label and I was so stupid and they never called back either…that’s two chances I’ve ruined for no good reason.” In reference to his thoughts on the movie Daniel has said “I think it’s funny enough for anybody that has a sense of humour. If there was a laugh track on there it would’ve helped out.” and even, “I’ve seen it about 10 times. I really do like it.” but the response I received was, of course, quite different.
It turns out that the two guys who were lingering behind us during the interview apparently went to highschool with me, so we all went next door to get some drinks before the show and talked about the whole situation that just went down. One of them mentioned that they were glad that I ended the interview when I did, because they were picking up on the same uncomfortably restless vibe from Daniel that I was. They, however, assured me that the interview went really well despite the awkward moments. I, myself, have mixed feelings about the interview and, more specifically, in how Daniel may be percieved through it. It was good to talk with die-hard fans who had witnessed it and have respect for him that let me know that it’s important to show Johnston “the way he is“.
James McNew of Yo La Tengo said, “I once visited him in a mental hospital and it was difficult to have a conversation but when he’s playing he comes alive. We’ve done gigs with him and it’s like performing with Santa or the Easter Bunny, this mythical creature that’s only existed in your imagination.” I feel that this quote really sums up my own experience with Daniel. He got quite a bit of help with the instrumentation in his performance but he still put his soul into the vocals. He performed classics like Walking The Cow and finished the show off by first, playing True Love Will Find You In The End, and then having the entire crowd sing along with him to his acapella classic Devil Town. I realized, after viewing my interview with him repeatedly, that my feelings are very similar to Daniel’s feelings about his documentary, in that they often change. I first viewed it as a trainwreck and I felt like an asshole but now I am more positive than ever about getting the chance to to have this experience. I am now aware that this interview, like all of the others I’ve read, is like a sample of Daniel in a little capsule and I actually encourage everyone to continue on and read the interviewers done by others out there. Just like his music, in the respect that each little song exposes something new about Daniel, it seems that each and every moment captured in his life tends to do the same. I am proud to contribute something new, no matter how small, to help archive his life. There are many expectations that have been put on the artist by others before me and even more expectations placed by him on himself, but I believe that his art is so authentic that it mirrors his personality directly. The greatness of Daniel’s work doesn’t come from the fact that he’s dealt with so many emotional battles, but despite them. Much like a large portion of his musical recordings, there is also a low-fi static around who Daniel really is and, once you get to the center of them both and witness what is beneath, the previous barriers actually dissipate. If you believe as I do, that physical art is really just amanifestation of the intangible into the tangible, no one is more successful than Daniel Johnston. Daniel Johnston writes timeless songs with no perservatives.
Johnston went from making remarkable low-fi tape recordings with his nephew’s toy chord organ to becoming one of the most repected songwriters of his generation, with various incarcerations and mental breakdowns and delusions thrown in, of course. His music has been covered and/or cited as an inspiration by fellow musicians from Tom Waits to Kurt Cobain and he has even worked with the likes of Jad Fair (Half Japanese) and members of Sonic Youth. I first became aware of Johnston, myself, through a Built to Spill album that contained a cover of Some Things Last A Long Time and , although his legend and music continued to spread and, although that is a wonderful and magnificent thing, Daniel has lived through some of the most nightmarish hells and, for years, did not recieve much of any financial compensation for his work or for the pain and soul that he pours into it. Finally, in 2004 Gammon Records released a 2-disc compilation of Daniel’s music called Discovered Covered. One Disc is of Johnston originals while the other disc contains covers from musicians such as Beck and The Flaming Lips. The proceeds from the double album went into building Daniel a home of his own next to his parents residence in Texas and Yo-La Tengo’s cover of the track Speeding Morotcycle was used in a Target advertisement for which Daniel recieved $40,000.
If you are planning to purchase any Daniel Johnston music or merchandise, I strongly encourage you to try and buy it through HiHowAreYou.com or download it through the site YipEyeTunes.com. This is the one sure way, aside from buying directly at his concerts, to make sure that your money is actually going to support Daniel. The official fansite, RejectedUnknown.com is another great source for anything Daniel Johnston, inlcuding updates, interviews, links, etc. If you have gum stuck to your jeans a)heat up some vinegar in your microwave b) apply to effected area of denim c) remove by rubbing spot with a toothbrush in circular patterns. No shit… it works!