October 23rd, 2009 | Interviews


Download: Daniel Johnston “Freedom”


(from Is And Always Was out now on High Wire)

“Daniel’s got his marbles in a row right now so I guess that’d be all right,” Daniel’s dad, Bill, told me when I called the Johnston family home. “Daniel’s a regular person, you know, like you and me.” “That might be so,” I said, “but Daniel’s done some things I’ve never done that I’m real curious about—plus I think we might have a fun time talkin’ to each other.” We did. This interview by Drew Denny and Chris Ziegler.

I heard you went to Austin this weekend. I’m from Austin.
Daniel Johnston: You’re from Austin? Oh, how ’bout that! We was there the other day for that show—part of the festival. We were over by the Coliseum on the other side of the river. I sang and I played and that was about it. The band was real good and there was like a million people—at least a hundred thousand people—it was one of the biggest crowds I ever played for. Well, a hundred thousand might be stretchin’ it, but there was a lot of people. I wonder how many people there was—I really don’t know.
Austin is a good crowd—friendly people.
Daniel Johnston: That’s right—they come out a lot for original music. There’s that type of people and then people that’d just rather hear top 40 and stuff …
What’s your favorite joke to tell on stage when you play?
Daniel Johnston: This is a real dream that I had and I tell this story when I’m in concert: I had a dream that this guy was sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide. And in the dream, I was there and I was going, ‘Nooo! NOOO!’ It was a nightmare.
Do you ever try to use your dreams for songs?
Daniel Johnston: I try to. I wish I could remember more than I do.
When did you first go to Austin?
Daniel Johnston: I got in Texas—in Austin—when I came in with the carnival in 1984.
That’s when I was born.
Daniel Johnston: That’s when you were born? How can you be that young? That’s wild!
What was it like back then in Austin?
Daniel Johnston: It was pretty fun. Sure is a wild town.
Did you hang out at Barton Springs?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, when I used to live there working at McDonald’s, me and my girlfriend would go out and go swimming. It’s like Woodstock there.
I was a carhop at Sonic in high school. What was your fast food experience like?
Daniel Johnston: The manager at the place was real impressed when he saw the newspaper article that featured me about the MTV thing, you know. That was pretty funny ’cause I never got any respect from him until I was in the newspaper.
And then you didn’t have to work too hard?
Daniel Johnston: Nah, I still had to work.
Did you ever play house parties back then?
Daniel Johnston: I used to just make tapes for my friends—that’s how I started out. They had me thinking I was famous! All my friends would come over and I’d play some songs or we’d all get together and do a show on tape. We’d pretend it was a talk show and they’d interview me. For real—I felt like a star! Maybe more than today.
Where you livin’ now?
Daniel Johnston: I live out here towards Houston—it’s a couple hours from Austin. On down the road here.
Is it pretty?
Daniel Johnston: It sure is. I like it. When I lived in town I was always getting arrested and getting into trouble and everything, so I’m glad to be out here where there’s no cops around. I don’t go anywhere so I’m safer that way, you know.
You go to church out there?
Daniel Johnston: We used to go to church but we don’t go to church anymore. It’s been a long time since we gone. … I always enjoy going and seein’ the pretty girls. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was talking to one once and she appeared to be a grown-up girl. I says, ‘Hi, how old are you?’ and she says, ‘Twelve’ and I go, ‘Aw, man—get me out of this place!’
They’re growin’ up faster these days I think!
Daniel Johnston: It’s true! And even old people don’t look that old. It’s strange. I don’t feel that young. I’m supposed to be quite a bit old, but I just feel just fine. It must be the better drugs and the better food—maybe somethin’ like that. You know that science and technology has advanced and there’s better food for you in some places, I guess.
I live in L.A. now but I miss Texas. I just found a church out here—it seats like three thousand and they have a big band and people speak in tongues. What do you think about that?
Daniel Johnston: I ain’t into that kinda stuff. We never did that kinda crazy stuff at our church. You know it wasn’t like that at all. I been to one of those once and it was hilarious. My friend had been going—it was like after high school, you know—so he picked me up and my other friend. We went and it was hilarious. It was a woman preacher and she was yellin’ and screamin’ and it’s comedy material!
So you’re making new music?
Daniel Johnston: Tryin’ to. Doin’ concerts. Keep on drawin’ all the time. I draw a lot.
When did you start?
Daniel Johnston: I ’member when we moved to West Virginia a long time ago when I was just a kid and there weren’t any kids around to play with—or it didn’t seem like it—so my mother bought me some pamphlets—writing paper—and I started drawing all day and I was happy!
I didn’t have any friends when I was little but I couldn’t draw, so all I did was eat cake and ride horses.
Daniel Johnston: All my life I wanted to be a comic book artist.
What were the first comic books you got?
Daniel Johnston: Herbie. I love all comic books. When I go to look at ’em, no matter what they are, if I like it—or if it’s cheap is the main thing, if it’s cheap enough—I’ll buy it.
What do you do with your drawings?
Daniel Johnston: I sell ’em. That’s my spending cash!
How do you feel about exhibiting your drawings?
Daniel Johnston: That’s a lot of fun too. We did this big gallery show—it was like a festival thing. Sometimes my bigger drawings would sell for a thousand five hundred, and I see ’em writin’ out those checks and go, ‘I can’t believe this! Wow!’ We have a book out this year with my drawings. I don’t know if you know about it but it should be in your bookstore.
Any plans for when you come to L.A.?
Daniel Johnston: I was in L.A. a month ago recording a new album that’s already out. It’s called Is and Always Was. It sounds just great. I like it a lot. I played while I was there but I’m sure to come back out to L.A. and do some shows. We just went in and recorded some tracks and they re-dubbed the music and I sang along with the tapes—karaoke style!
Have you ever done karaoke?
Daniel Johnston: No. I almost did one time. But that’s what this was like!
What would you sing if you did it?
Daniel Johnston: Daniel Johnston songs, I guess.
What are your favorite things to draw or to sing about?
Daniel Johnston: I draw pretty much the same kind of thing over and over again—try to catch some characters I’m workin’ with. I just like listenin’ to music and watchin’ movies and playin’ piano and guitar—
Bill Johnston: And shop!
Daniel Johnston: Ha—yeah! I love to go shoppin’! All around the world, everywhere we go. Comic books—that’s right.
What’s the best present you ever got in the mail?
Daniel Johnston: Oh, well, they usually send me something like a shirt with their band name. And I don’t like to wear ’em because I don’t know who they are. They should send comic books—stuff like that. Comic books and magazines or something.
Have you got to play that video game they made about your art yet?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah—this is crazy! It’s a lot of fun. What’ll they think of next, really? They made some shoes—one company had some shoes with my drawings all over ’em. And another company made a toy out of the frog. Converse shoes and they’re making the toys. What’ll they think of next? I don’t know—something crazy!
I just got one more—it’s sort of a personal question for me. My mother’s in a mental hospital in Austin right now and I was wondering if you could give me some advice about what I could do to make that time easier on her.
Daniel Johnston: You should definitely go visit her ’cause when I was at the mental hospital that was like the highlight of my day if someone come visit, you know. And bring her a soda pop.