On the Record: The Mysterious Daniel Johnston

Last Monday at the ’Sco, lo-fi singer/songwriting hero Daniel Johnston delivered simple, painfully sincere and clever love songs in his signature quivering voice and with striking intensity, staring at the floor as he played and periodically running off the stage for breaks. Although in most cases this unpolished presentation would be subject to criticism, it’s precisely this quality that Johnston’s legions of devoted, often-obsessive fans love about the man and his music. Watching Johnston perform was a raw emotional experience; to witness this singer put his bare emotions on display before an audience that may or may not get it — let alone care at all — was at times uncomfortable. But the performance was also inspiring in a way that too few concerts are; Johnston’s palpable vulnerability and lack of pretension were a refreshing reminder of what all artists and musicians should strive for: brutal sincerity, at whatever cost. I was especially taken aback by Johnston’s cover of The Beatles’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”: With his eyes closed, Johnston seemed to not care at all about who was listening or what we thought of him, and it felt as if we had walked in on him singing tenderly to himself in his bedroom. Most musicians are so busy trying to up their coolness factor that they’ve no doubt forgotten the classics — like the Beatles — that drew them to music in the first place. Unsurprisingly, Johnston mentioned the Beatles again and again in our interview, demonstrating in conversation the unassuming quality of his musical persona.

Beatrice Rothbaum, Editor-In-Chief

There are a lot of compilations of your work, like the Story of An Artist box set that was released last year. Are you still fond of your earlier recordings?

I don’t really listen to it that much, but when I’m with friends sometimes and they put it on, it’s not bad to hear it. Then I think, ‘Wow, I write pretty good, I wonder if I can still do it.’ Then when I’m writing, I think, ‘This is a bit more advanced. And it’s gonna be better than that on real records with good production.’ So, for the most part it’s still the same, except I’m recording in a real studio.

You have a new comic book coming out—

Yeah, Space Ducks.

Can you tell me a little about it?

It’s about the adventures of these space ducks that climb the hidden headquarters to save this military group. It’s all about the war that went on, so it’s kind of comical. This is the first real comic book that I’ve done for the public. I’m not done yet, but I just keep getting a lot of remarks about it. When I started out, they said, ‘What’s your new comic book about?’ And I said, “Space Ducks.” I just made it up. It’s like Beatlemania or something… I’m just kidding…

What was new for you about the process of making the comic book?

I always wanted to be a comic book artist, and then when I moved to Austin, I found out that there were clubs with people my own age that I could do shows with. I always did my music, but I thought I would make a living through my drawings, not my music. I started playing all of the time, and I eventually did some recording, and now I’m finally the comic book artist that I always wanted to be. It helps to have fans. It’s pretty cool.

So you’re coming out with this comic book, and you’ve done a lot of music and art in the past. Do you hope to tackle a different kind of project in the future?

Well, we’re planning to work on a new movie. I want to direct a new movie. There are other opportunities for me and my band, Danny and The Nightmares. We have a new album coming out very soon that I’m really proud of. It’s called The Death of Satan. We’re really happy about it. It’s really scary — it’s not for the weak at heart.

When did you start writing songs?

Junior high. I was listening to a lot of the earlier Cream albums and boy, did I love it. But the way I found out about the Beatles was I bought a bunch of singles at record stores and I picked out my two favorites and they were both by Paul McCartney. So, I remember going to a store and seeing the Beatles on file and saying, “Well, here’s Paul’s old group, I wonder if they were any good.” [Laughs]

Did you have any formal music training?

I had a piano tuner that came and tuned my piano one time, and I said, “Can you show me a few tricks?” because he was a music guy. And he was playing C6 and F6 and even though I still play those all of the time, they haven’t made it to a record yet. So I still plan to use those.

So, did you just figure out the other chords?

Well, with the Beatles, I heard Ringo say in an interview that they would take fakebooks and get chord progressions from them and just have fun. But if there’s a chord progression that exists and if you play it yourself and ignore the real song, you can make up your own music to it. That’s what I’ve done a lot, with Songs of Pain especially.

Do you remember what it was like to make that album?

Well, I was in love with a girl that married an undertaker, and I was sure that I was going to die, and it was the only way I could ever see her again.

Did music help you get through tough times?

The Beatles saved me a lot. I was really a nerd in high school because I had a nervous breakdown, because I’m a manic-depressive, you know… And in junior high I was one of the most popular kids at school. By the time I went to high school everyone was saying, “What’s wrong with Dan?” When I was a senior I discovered the Beatles and I’d play it and I started loving it and I was encouraged. So I started going up to girls at school and talking to them with a British accent [Laughs].