Q&A With Daniel Johnston
Interviewing Daniel Johnston, the subject of an April 3 Westword profile, is, to put it mildly, a unique experience, as will be clear to any reader of the following Q&A.
First, some set-up. I arranged my chat with Daniel’s father, Bill, who helps manage his son’s career and lives in a house next door to his in the small community of Waller, Texas. Bill told me to phone at 10:30 a.m. the next morning. When I did, however, Bill revealed that Daniel was still asleep and suggested that I call back that afternoon. I phoned again at the appointed time, but Daniel still hadn’t gotten out of bed. Bill speculated that the reason could have something to do with low blood sugar – Daniel suffers from diabetes in addition to an array of mental ailments generally grouped under the bi-polar heading – and advised me to try once more the next morning in the not-so-reliable 10:30 a.m. slot. Turns out Daniel hadn’t risen by then, either, and Bill didn’t feel like waiting to find out if he’d resurrect himself. This time, he said to call in just fifteen minutes, and when I did, Daniel answered, sounding a bit groggy – hence the moderately confused tone of the early questions below.
Fortunately, though, Daniel warmed up as the conversation progressed, ultimately revealing plenty about his day-to-day life. He touched upon his touring routine, which calls for him to perform with a different band in every town (just like Chuck Berry back in the day); the increased size of his audience since the release of the acclaimed 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston; the question of whether the film exploited the often tragic and/or tragicomic aspects of his life; the opportunity to meet again with a long-gone acquaintance named Laurie, about whom he wrote a vast number of tunes; past dust-ups in Austin, including one that landed him in jail; his last real job – at an Austin McDonald’s; the death of Captain America, one of his favorite comic-book characters; Target’s use of a ditty he penned in a commercial; and, recurringly, his ongoing bouts with depression, which causes him to “hibernate like a bear,” and the occasional relief he feels when he makes music and art.
May he continue to keep misery at bay for as long as possible:
Westword (Michael Roberts): Were you not feeling good yesterday?
Daniel Johnston: No, I wasn’t feeling good yesterday. Sorry about that.
WW: No problem. I was just concerned. Are you feeling sick?
DJ: I was just sleeping. Yeah…
WW: Your dad said your blood sugar gets low sometimes, and that makes you sleepy. Is that what happened?
DJ: Oh, no. No. I was just tired.
WW: Did you have a late night the night before?
WW: I understand you just completed a series of tour dates. Is that right?
WW: Where’d you play?
DJ: We played up in New York and around different places.
WW: How did the shows go?
DJ: Oh, it was fun. There were a lot of people at each show. You know, there were quite a lot of people. It was enjoyable.
WW: You’ve got more tour dates coming up soon, including one in Denver. Are you looking forward to them?
DJ: Well, I’ve got a month off. It’s enjoyable. Mmm-hmm.
WW: Do you have a new album coming out – is that why you scheduled the tour? Or did you just want to get out there and play?
DJ: Yeah, I just wanted to get out. It was all my manager’s decision – my dad. So…
WW: Do you get a say on those decisions? Can you say, “Dad, I don’t want to do it right now”? Or does he pretty much say, “Get out there and play”?
DJ: He makes the decisions, more or less (laughs).
WW: When you tour, how do you travel? Do you take a plane? A train? A bus? A van?
DJ: Yeah, we either take a plane. All different types of things. Once we’re on the road, all different kinds.
WW: What are the best parts of touring for you?
DJ: Well, the concerts, you know. Performing is a lot of fun.
WW: How about the worst parts?
DJ: Well, the worst part is if we miss a plane or something, and we get stuck somewhere.
WW: Did that happen on this last tour?
DJ: No, this time we made it pretty good.
WW: When you tour, do you travel with a band?
DJ: Well, what they have arranged is, bands play at every show that we stop at, you know.
WW: Do you send them a list of the songs you’re going to be playing and they learn them?
DJ: Yeah. Uh-huh.
WW: Are the bands usually pretty good? Or sometimes does it seem that they’re just winging it?
DJ: Well, they do pretty well, because the songs are really just simple chords and easy to play. So they’re always ready.
WW: How much time do you get to spend with them before you take the stage. Do you just show up and get started? Or do you have a little rehearsal time?
DJ: Yeah, we rehearse.
WW: Does your family travel with you when you tour?
DJ: No. No. My brother comes with me, though. But my family doesn’t.
WW: Does your brother take care of the arrangements – the hotels and so forth?
DJ: Yeah, he’s also one of my managers. He’s the road or concert manager, I guess (laughs).
WW: I’ll bet its nice to have your family to rely on instead of worrying about some manager you don’t know ripping you off.
DJ: Right. Yeah.
WW: When you go to the shows, is there a typical Daniel Johnston fan?
DJ: There are all kinds of people. All kinds of people.
WW: Young and old alike?
DJ: Usually not that old. Usually pretty young. You know.
WW: Has the number of fans who’ve been coming to the show gone up since the documentary come out?
DJ: No, not really. (Pause.) No, actually there are much more people now. Bigger places, lots of people, more than ever before. It’s pretty weird.
WW: Did that surprise you?
DJ: I don’t know. Not really.
WW: You thought people would see the movie and like what they saw?
DJ: Yeah. Of course.
WW: How about you? Looking back on the movie, are you still glad you did it?
DJ: I sure am. I really didn’t do it that much, though. It was all their idea. They put it together and everything. They’re the ones who picked the title. It sure is scary for me to have a title like that. There’s never been anything like that. And they filmed a hundred times more than what they showed. It took forever, but I think it’s kind of funny in a way. When I first saw it, I thought it was too much of exploitation. But besides that, now, when I think about it, I think it’s kind of funny. I think people are humored by it for some reason, because there’s a lot of jokes that people say – humor, you know.
WW: When you mention exploitation, is there part of you that felt like they focused too much on the bad things that have happened to you?
DJ: Oh, man, all they did was talk about was the bad stuff. The music wasn’t enough. There wasn’t enough of the music in my contribulation. I’d start playing a song and they’d stop and start again. There were a few songs that were complete in the movie, but they usually would just stop mid-song, and I never got to finish my song. That’s what I’m about, I thought (laughs).
WW: Is that one of the nice things about doing shows: You get to finish the songs?
DJ: Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t know…
WW: I understand that you got to meet Laurie [Allen] again after one of the screenings…
DJ: Oh, yeah. It was un-real. Laurie was the great love of my life. She was like a sister. We were really close, like brother and sister. Really good friends. When she got married, it broke my heart. She was already going steady, already pretty much engaged when I met her. She was working at the funeral home. He was a funeral director, undertaker, you know. It was kind of tragic. Because of that, all I could think about were funeral homes and funeral jokes, you know. You know, like the first three letters in “funeral” is “fun,” and other jokes like that. In songs, there was always mentions of that. Especially songs from way back when.
WW: Have you been in touch with her in the years since the movie came out?
DJ: We were in touch for a while, and then I lost her phone number. She called me, and I lost the phone number, and we haven’t been in contact for the longest time after we met again. I tried to get her number, and it’s very difficult to get her number.
WW: But the memories are still there…
DJ: Yeah, it was still great to see her again. She was more beautiful than ever.
WW: What town are you living in these days?
DJ: We live in a small town called Waller in between Austin and Houston.
WW: How long a drive is it to Austin?
DJ: Oh, about two hours, and it’s about an hour and a half to Houston. It’s almost in the middle, sort of.
WW: Do you miss Austin? You spent a long time there…
DJ: Well, if I had stayed in Austin and not come home, I could have probably ended up in the hospital again, because I was always in trouble and going to the hospital and stuff, and even the cops – I’d end up going to jail for nothing, for no good reason. I had a fight and the cops came and then I fought the cops. I was just out of my mind (laughs). There were cops all around. There must have been about five of them, and then they had me, and I was in jail for that. It wasn’t fair.
WW: There were too many temptations in Austin?
DJ: Yeah. I’d be out at night, wandering around. So it’s best that I’m living here now, where I’m out of trouble.
WW: I understand that a version of a play based on your music called Speeding Motorcycle is playing in Austin right now.
DJ: Yeah, they’re doing a new version of it, and some of my friends are in it, so I’m excited.
WW: Which friends?
DJ: Well, my ex-girlfriend, Kathy McCarty, and a guy I’ve recorded with, Bill Anderson, is going to play guitar in the band. And there’ll probably be other people that I’ve already met, from the last time they did it.
WW: Do you like the show?
DJ: Yeah, it’s pretty funny. It’s pretty good, I think.
WW: How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t seen it?
DJ: Well, what it is, it’s just a bunch of my songs put in order as if it’s all like a play, you know.
WW: I remember reading a few years ago that a tribute CD made about you, Discovered Covered, was supposed to raise money for you to get your own place. Is that right?
DJ: We had enough by that point, you know. I don’t think that’s the way it was. But it didn’t hurt to have that, you know.
WW: At this point, though, you like living at your folks’ place?
DJ: I have my own house now that my dad designed, and it’s right next door to my mom and dad’s house. It is so great to have a place of my own, you know. I try to keep up with my art and with my music when I’m not lazy, you know. I’m trying to get back into my art and music. I’ve tried to keep it going, you know. It is important to me.
WW: What’s your average day like?
DJ: Well, these last few days… Every now and then, I hibernate like a bear. I can sleep up to four days. When I’m depressed, it happens to me. I just want to sleep, and I can sometimes just go to sleep all the time. And so I woke up today, and I’m going to try to stay awake. Since I get depressed, you know. I’m a manic depressive…
WW: Have you been feeling depressed lately?
DJ: Yes, I have. They give me these pills, and they seem to help a lot. But, you know, I just got a little bit depressed again, I guess.
WW: When you’re depressed, does making art or making music help you shake that depression?
DJ: Exactly. Once I start, it always helps, you know. But sometimes I just get too lazy to do it. I won’t even try. But once I try, I go, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember this. It’s fun.’”
WW: What’s the most recent art you’ve been working on?
DJ: Well, I’ve been drawing a lot of my own characters again. Putting them in different situations and things. Captain America and Casper, you know. Just drawing things in different situations.
WW: I was going to ask you about Captain America – about the plotline where the character was killed. What did you think of that?
DJ: Oh, man. Captain America?
DJ: This happened in the history of Captain America before. About 109, 111, Captain America was supposed to be dead, but he came back to life. He was all right. They thought he was dead, but they didn’t have his body. The comic book said he was dead and everything and he came back to life. But this time, it seems a little bit more concrete. They’re acting like he really did die, which is a tragedy, and there’s somebody in his place already.
WW: It’s Bucky, right?
DJ: I don’t know. How could Bucky be in it? Bucky shows up, right?
WW: I think that’s right. Bucky shows up and then he becomes the new Captain America.
DJ: Well, I guess that’s good news – but Bucky’s been missing since World War II. If it really is Bucky. I don’t know what to think. But I don’t buy those Captain Americas any more. I haven’t read them for years. So this whole thing is a shock for them to do that. I don’t know why they would do that.
WW: When you heard he died, it didn’t make you curious to read about it?
DJ: Well, I was given some of the comics, but I haven’t read them. I don’t read comic books, really, anymore, because my eyesight has gone bad and I can’t focus very well to read the small print, you know. I do buy a lot of comic books, but I just buy them for the artwork.
WW: How about your songs? How often do you write new ones?
DJ: Well, I always try. When I do try every day, I try to spend an hour or two trying to make up songs.
WW: Are there some days when you don’t make up any and some days when you make up a bunch?
DJ: Exactly. Like today, like these past few days, I’ve been sort of depressed. But now I woke up and I’m feeling a little bit better.
WW: What are your inspirations for songs these days? Do songs just come to you? Or do you think about specific things to get in the mood?
DJ: I just start thinking about something. It does come a lot from the subconscious. I’ll just start playing some chords and I’m kind of mumbling, and then it sounds like things, and then I start writing down lyrics. Sort of like that, you know.
WW: Does it make you proud to know that so many people like your songs and are impressed by them?
DJ: Yeah, sure. That makes me happy. I always wanted to be famous, and now I have a chance to make a living, and I have done well enough to make a living. I haven’t worked since 1986, so I’m happy about that, and I’ll continue to make records, and I hope that people will enjoy them.
WW: What was your last job?
DJ: I worked at a McDonalds in Austin, Texas (laughs).
WW: How long did that job last?
DJ: At least a year and a half or two years or something like that. I worked in the lobby. I would clean up the tables. I would just be dreaming every day, just to see all the people. It was entertaining to watch all the people who went into McDonalds. It was a real big lobby, on the UT campus.
WW: Was it like going to a play every day, where you could watch different characters?
DJ: Yeah, right.
WW: I read somewhere that you had a health crisis in 2005. Is that right?
DJ: Health crisis? Yeah, I took some acid, like they say in the movie. Drugs, right? And I freaked out a lot. My dad finally came and brought me home.
WW: Since then, have you taken any more acid? Or was that enough for you?
DJ: No, I haven’t. I’m glad I haven’t. I got really freaked out.
WW: Over the years, do you feel like your voice has changed at all?
DJ: Yeah, I used to sing in kind of a regular voice when I started out with [1981’s] Songs of Pain. But then when I started doing [1989’s] Yip/Jump Music, for some reason… It was sort of like, John Lennon on The White Album used to sing in a high voice, you know? And so I was thinking of Elvis Costello’s Get Happy, and I would sing in sort of a high voice.
WW: Can you still hit those really high notes like you could on those earlier recordings?
DJ: Mmm-hmmm. Yeah.
WW: Do you feel like you have enough songs to make a new album anytime soon?
DJ: Me and my friends have been working on a new album, and there’s a lot of unreleased material that we’d like to release. So we’re looking forward to a new album very soon.
WW: Are you going to put those out yourself?
DJ: Yes, we’re doing them on our own label. We tried to get it on this other label, but we’ll probably end up putting it out on our own label.
WW: What was the other label?
DJ: Trance Syndicate.
WW: And it didn’t work out?
DJ: No. My dad and my brother wanted us to put it out on our own label.
WW: Do other artists continue to do cover versions of your songs.
DJ: A lot of people do. I’ve heard a lot of different ones that were pretty good.
WW: I heard one of them got used for a Target ad. Is that right?
DJ: Yeah, Target did an ad, and they used “Speeding Motorcycle.” They were singing the song of it, and it sounded pretty weird. I don’t know what they were selling. Motorcycle jackets, maybe.
WW: Who sang that?
DJ: Mary Lord something. I can’t remember her last name.
WW: Mary Lou Lord?
DJ: Yeah, that’s it.
WW: You mentioned that you don’t read comic books that much anymore – but would you like to make a comic book?
DJ: That’s one thing I want to do in the future. That’s true.
WW: Would you like to make a comic book about your own life?
DJ: I probably would. Something to do with my life, or some kind of comic book. I’ve had some offers… So, I think I’ve got to go now if it’s okay with you, sir.