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Daniel Johnston - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 27 / 8 / 2009

Daniel Johnston - Interview


Mark Rowland speaks to damaged musical genius Daniel Johnston about his forthcoming album, 'Is and Always Was'. which has been produced by Paul McCartney producer Jason Falkner, and his long musical history

Talking to Daniel Johnston was never going to be straightforward. The man has been in and out of institutions for a large part of his adult life, has been on a number of medications that caused all sorts of difficult side effects. Alhough he is now stable, he is still a very fragile man, with childlike mannerisms, a heavy smoking habit (a by-product of his time in the aforementioned institutions) and a curious addiction to fizzy drinks. Still, it is great to see him happy and working, playing regular gigs, and getting some of the recognition he deserves for his art and music. In recent years, Daniel’s life, art and music has been celebrated in a biography, a documentary, numerous exhibitions, live DVDs, toys, a movie and even, for a very short while, some Converse shoes. Johnston is also still producing great albums, 30 years after he first started recording on a cheap tape recorder at his parents’ house. His last album, 'Lost and Found', was a great wonky pop album. His new one, 'Is and Always Was', produced by Jason Falkner, who has worked with Paul McCartney, Beck and Air, promises to take Johnston a step closer to the glistening, Beatles-esque sound he’s always wanted. A bunch of his old records, 'Hi How Are You?', 'Continued Story' and 'Yip/Jump Music', have also just been re-released in Europe, giving Johnston more exposure along with his forthcoming European tour in November. To talk to Daniel Johnston, you have to phone his elderly father, Bill, between four and seven pm UK time. The first time, the phone is engaged. The second, it rings for a while, before a soft, cracked voice answers the phone: “Hello?” It is difficult to tell who it is at the other end of the line. Perhaps it is Bill. The person on the other end sounds confused, and curiously teenage, when he says, “Do you want to speak to my dad?” This is definitely Daniel. Daniel is a difficult interviewee to pin down, often giving short, detail-free answers, or the answer to a different question entirely. Part of his mind is clearly somewhere else during the conversation – either wanting to get back to his drawings, listen to records, or even have a cigarette (he can’t last for long without one). Alhough it makes for a slightly awkward conversation at times, you can’t blame him for it. The music world is much richer for having Johnston operating inside it, on the margins. He doesn’t play the media game, doesn’t try to create an image, doesn’t trouble himself with the business part of the music industry. He makes music because he feels compelled to, and his songs are all the more warm and honest and touching for it. For me, Daniel’s songs are uplifting – they make you smile when you’re feeling down, they sometimes make you laugh, other times, they make you cry. His songs, and the imagery that he creates within his songs and pictures, are totally immersive, and once you’ve found yourself in his world, it’s often difficult to come back out. PB: You recorded your new album with Jason Falkner, who has produced Paul McCartney and Beck among others. What were the recording sessions like? DJ: We went to LA and we did some recording and they’re producing it so I’m real excited about it. It was really cool. There was two sessions that we did> We did a lot of recording and then we did back up sessions and then I just sang with tape. It was a lot of fun. PB: What can people expect from this album? What sort of sound does it have? DJ: Well he does a lot of…what I love most about working with him, it sounds very very Beatleish, It sounds like the Beatles. I’m really happy with it, because I love the Beatles. PB: You usually do the artwork for your records. What is the cover of the new record like? DJ: Well for the new album, it’s gonna be called 'Weird'. I used to draw these things I called weirdies, and I plan to put one of them on the cover, you know, put a creature on the cover like certain albums have had drawings on the cover, and...uh...that’s about it. PB: You have a lot of running themes in your artwork and your songs. How do you come up with the things that appear in your drawings? DJ: I do a lot of drawings, you know, and I like to think about the album covers, too. It’s a lot of fun to put together. PB: You’re coming over to tour in Europe soon. What do you think of Europe? DJ: Well, it’s alright, you know, but in a lot of places, they don’t even have ice – you get a soda pop and they don’t have ice. A lot of the food looks like it’s a million years old. I like the United States best. It’s the best. PB: You’re playing the Union Chapel in London again. I know you’ve played there a couple of times before. Is there anything in particular that’s brought you back to that venue? DJ: I think it’s just the arrangements that they made with my brother. My brother’s my tour manager and he sorts all of that stuff out. PB: You’re a very prolific songwriter. Is there any particular way that you go about writing? Do you have an idea in your head beforehand, or do you work it out as you go along? DJ: Sometimes a little bit of both, you know. PB: What’s your preferred instrument to write on? DJ: Guitar or piano. PB: I heard they were making a video game of your songs and drawings for the iPhone. DJ: Yeah, some kind of video game. PB: What do you think about that? DJ: Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool. I don’t really play those games much, but it might be popular. I don’t know. PB: I also heard they were going to make some Daniel Johnston shoes. Is that right? DJ : (Laughs) Yeah that’s right. There was some shoes, a movie and.., All the other stuff, shirts and toys. Just about everything. PB: What’s your opinion of all this merchandise? Is it a bit strange? DJ: It’s pretty cool. I think it’s great. PB: The film you mentioned; will that be a proper movie, with actors and everything? DJ: Hmm. Yeah, it’s going to be like real people, so there’s lots of songs and stuff like that. PB: Will you make an appearance in it? DJ: Mmm hmm. PB: Did you see the documentary that was made about you? What did you think of that? DJ: Well, it was hilarious. I thought it was very funny. They put it together themselves, and it was cool to have my friends, it was hilarious to have my friends in a movie, you know. PB: You’ve been playing music for three decades now. Do you think there’s a big difference between your audience now and your audience in the past? Do you think you’ve gained a lot of new fans? DJ: Yeah, we had a lot of different people playing on the show, you know. Is that what you mean? With my band, we’ve been playing together eight years, and we get together two, three times a month, and our new album is called 'The Death of Satan'. We have so much other material, the next thing we plan to do is like a box set. We’re going to take like a year off to try to put together our favourite songs we’ve ever recorded and we’re going to have a box set. And then the album in LA that we recorded is called 'Weird', 'The Same as Always Is' or something like that, 'The Same as Always Was' or something. That was put together with the producer there in LA. We had a couple of sessions and I guess he’s producing it now. PB: The boxset sounds great. How many discs will that be? DJ: If we do it, it will be more than two or three. PB: Will it all be old songs, or some new ones as well? DJ: Like I said, over an eight year period we’ve written tons of these songs, and this record, 'The Death of Satan', is one of the most recent of the songs and stuff like that. PB: What’s your band called? DJ: Danny and the Nightmares. You’ve heard of Danny and the Juniors. Well that’s where my group got the idea, so we’ve got a cool title. PB: What’s the difference between recording with the band and recording your solo stuff? DJ: Uh, with the band it’s fun because I’ll play guitar and make up a riff, and we’ll make up a lot of songs, and we’ll work on songs to play on tour and stuff. It’s a lot of fun. It’s my first real band that I’ve ever had that’s stayed with me. They just live down the road in another town that’s not too far away. And uh, so As far as having the band it’s the first chance I’ve had to have a band to work out songs and play live and everything. We played with the Butthole Surfers, and a lot of gigs like that. PB: You’ve been recording in studios for your last few albums. Would you ever go back to home recording, or are those days behind you? DJ: I’m trying to get a better sound in recording studios and such, but we’re planning to build our very own studio in the back of my house. I’m very excited about it, to be able to do my own recordings, and so we can get a good sound and better sound from now on. PB: Wow, that sounds great. DJ: Yeah it should be pretty cool. My brother would produce. PB: When you go into the studio, to what extent do you know how you want it to sound? DJ: Sometimes I do. With like '1990', everything was pretty well written, and I worked on like a lot of 16 track recordings, like with 'Jad Fair' - that was fun because we got a really good sound. With Danny and the Nighmares, we have a pretty good recording system, so the sound turns out pretty nice, you know. PB: You mentioned before your new record is quite Beatles-ish. What is it that draws you to the Beatles? DJ: The Beatles are number one. A few years back, before I was playing with the band, I realized I must have been listening to the Beatles non-stop for almost five years. I just realized it – just standing there, smoking, listening to the Beatles. It’s crazy. When I thought back, I came back to the house, and I remembered me standing there smoking with the Beatles playing, I thought, wow that was like five years of my life. Cause I was playing everything – the solo stuff, bootlegs, major albums, everything, just having a Beatles seminar, you know. PB: Do you have a particular favourite album by them? DJ: The album I think a lot about lately is Abbey Road. That’s been on my mind a lot lately. That sure is a great album. PB: It’s got that great medley at the end. DJ: Yeah that was really cool too. I agree. I have about five – yeah well, never mind, ok. I love the Beatles, and I listen to the Beatles still, so they’re still number one with me. PB: Have you ever been to the Beatles museum? DJ: We went to the wax museum in Hollywood. I heard there was a Beatles museum somewhere but I think we couldn’t find it, I’m not sure. PB: If you go to Liverpool you can go on a tour there. You can see John Lennon’s old house. DJ: John Lennon’s old house? PB: Yeah, in Liverpool DJ: They took us on this tour, on a tour bus, you know, when we were over in Liverpool, and they were driving the bus around. They stopped somewhere and they said, "Here’s where Paul McCartney used to live!" I was like, "I don’t believe this at all." They were just driving around, pointing at anything, I didn’t believe what they were saying at all. PB: Right. DJ: Even 'Abbey Road', when they said, "Here is Abbey Road that they walked across." It was just a sidewalk across one side to the other. It didn’t look big enough for one person to stand across, and they said, "This is the Abbey Road road" but it ain’t! I’m still surprised that Penny Lane still exists. PB: If you were given the opportunity to record in Abbey Road, would you take it, even though you’d have to come over to England? DJ: I definitely would, of course. Yeah, that would be quite an experience, to record in those studios, I forget what you call it. PB: Paul McCartney came out onstage at a Neil Young gig I was at. They did ‘A Day in the Life’ DJ: Wow, that’s something, that’s great. It’d be so cool to meet Paul McCartney. I’d just flip out. I’d freak. PB: Do you know if Paul McCartney is aware of your music? DJ: Well, guess, who as dropped in to my concert and played music with me? Elvis Costello. He listened to the last show and then he came on and did one of my songs with me called 'Man Obsessed'. He came out and sang it with me. We were with him for a couple of days and we went out and got sundaes and French toast and stuff. At first I said who is this guy? Cause he was there everywhere we went. It took me a while to figure out he was Elvis Costello. I love Elvis Costello. It was so much fun, and then he actually came onstage and did a song with me. It was really cool. PB: Wow, that’s great. I can imagine Elvis Costello singing that song. It sounds like one of his songs. DJ: Yeah, that was why I chose that song, because it was written in his style and everything, you know. It was so cool, it was. PB: I heard you did a song with the Swell Season on Austin City Limits. What do you think about the praise you get from other bands? DJ: Well, I tried to record with different bands to get a different sound every time, and so I keep on trying to record and write. Once I have a recording session, it’s much easier to write. If I don’t have a recording session scheduled, it’s quite hard to come up with stuff, but if you’ve got something going then you get the adrenaline all working and stuff. PB: OK… What do you think about all the cover versions of your songs? DJ: I was hoping that someday that somebody would do a cover version and have a hit with it. It’d be really cool if they did. PB: If people keep covering them, it’s only a matter of time. DJ: Yeah I guess. There are a lot of bands that have covered my songs. PB: Would it not be better if you had a hit? DJ: Yeah, that would be great. That would be awesome. We’re hoping to have better and better recording so that I might be able to produce something for major label release. PB: You worked with a major label before, but it didn’t really work out. What would you do differently this time? DJ: Well, uh, I still want to work with people I know, you know. So if the opportunities come up, you know. We’ve had some offers, man. It’s a possibility for some of the projects. I figure that’s what will happen next, and if it does, things will be going really well because of it. Then we could have like two records a year, something like that to look forward to, and making movies and stuff. We have plans to keep on making movies. PB: Thank you.

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Frail musical genius Daniel Johnston's albums will be reissued gradually over the rest of this year. Mark Rowland reflects upon the first of these reissues, his 1983 album, 'Yip/Jump Music', and a compilation, 'Welcome to My World'

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