Which do you believe first – the singer, the song or the listener?
With most songwriters, the words and melody are an act, a cloak they fling around themselves to keep the crowds entertained. Yet with Daniel Johnston it seems as if the Texan musician is offering up a part of himself.
Perhaps it is his lengthy back story. Recording songs on a boom box Johnston would hand out cassettes in the street, hoping to get his big break.
Obsessed with true love and The Beatles, Daniel Johnston has spent the best part of thirty years trying to make music whilst also battling severe mental health problems. Laid out for the world to see in ‘The Devil And The Daniel Johnston’ the film also had the converse effect of transforming the singer into a semi-celebrity.
Ahead of the release of his polished new album ‘Is And Always Was’ ClashMusic speaks to Daniel Johnston about comic books, true love and of course his beloved Beatles.
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Have you had a chance to listen to the new Beatles re-issues?
I haven’t had a chance to get it yet, but it sound pretty cool.
Have you tried the Rock Band game?
I’ve seen that. It’s pretty wild.
Are you glad that a new generation can experience the group?
Yeah I think they’ll be real popular. Kurt Cobain or somebody sang ‘Across The Universe’ – that was a pretty good movie I’ve seen that. The Beatles will be as popular as they ever were.
‘Is And Always Was’ was recorded in a professional studio, does this offer more than working on your own?
Yeah. I don’t really have studio equipment at this point, for one thing. We wanted to get the best sound we could, and we really tried. We got that pretty well I thought.
How did you meet Jason Faulkner?
We met some kind of connection somehow. Dad arranged for us to go and record in LA.
Did you find that you had a lot in common?
Yeah that’s the thing about it because he really loves The Beatles too. Like a lot! So we played in The Beatles style so when you ask about the way we produce and everything the style is very Beatles like so I love it.
Was there a particular Beatles song or album that proved to be an inspiration?
Well The Beatles are always my inspiration. Mostly the way he played guitar on these tracks it turned out sounding Beatles.
‘Lost In My Infinite Memory’ seems to recall ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – was this intentional?
Is that one of your favourite Beatles songs?
Sure is. Sure is.
You’ve played it live before, will ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ be making an appearance on the upcoming British tour?
Well I don’t know if we’ll do it in concert but we’ll be doing ‘Hey You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’.
How did songwriting work on the album? Were they written before sessions began?
Yeah I already had the songs written. I had them done for a long time.
Where do you write your songs?
I have my own place know where I try to write. I’ve been there for a long time now.
Does this independence help?
Yeah. I write on piano or, you know..
How often do you write?
I try to do it every day. I’m trying to get back into it. I have tons of songs that I haven’t recorded yet. We’re planning to build our own home studio. I’m excited about that.
Who is the song ‘Fake Records Of Rock & Roll’ aimed at?
What I mean is like a band that’s been together forever and they do their greatest hits but how could it be them after all these years, you know?
How do you think people manage to stay close to who they were at the beginning of their career?
I think some people can still write as good as they used to.
These songs you haven’t recorded – do you plan to record them at some stage?
I’ve got a lot of finished songs which I plan to do recording with in the future.
This album is quite poppy, is it a reaction to earlier material?
Yeah it sounds like a singalong type thing.
Was it a happy time, making the record?
It’s a bit of a more tearful album than some of my records.
Did Jason Faulkner help arrange any of the songs from the album?
Don’t get mad but I didn’t really catch what you got to say. It came out different the way he produced it. Because he could help. Well basically I played guitar and sang the basic parts, then he re-recorded with all the instruments and everything and had it ready when I came back again and then I sang along with his tapes. That’s how we did it.
How have you adjusted to becoming more well known?
It’s kind of fun. If you’re at the grocery store girls will go ‘hey there’s that guy from the movie’.
Do you think this record will be a big success then?
I hope so, I hope so. People who liked my albums before might like this new one. You know we’ve got a new album coming out soon? Called ‘The Death Of Satan’. With my band Danny And The Nightmares. We’re very excited about that. My old group here in Texas and we’ve played together for a long time. We’ve been together for like eight years, and this is our most professional release. I enjoy it very much I think people will like it a lot.
Where does the title ‘The Death Of Satan’ come from?
I don’t know! (Laughs)
On ‘Light Of Day’ you sing that ‘everything is alright’ is that how you feel right now?
Yeah. A little bit, yeah I guess.
Does making music make you happy?
There’s a lot of songs about love on the new album what is it that keeps you searching?
Well you know it’s like you’re always looking for something to be happy about. I like to keep myself entertained by watching movies, or drawing and writing songs. I try to keep busy because I can get depressed if I don’t and I want to be happy. As long as I keep busy then I’ll be happy.
In your music and art you cover various topics again and again, what keeps you coming back to these topics?
Yeah it’s fun to do a cover songs. One thing when I do a cover song I like to do additional lyrics and that’s what I’ve done a lot.
Did you have anything to do with the re-issues last year?
That was last year. Yeah I guess, but probably my dad made the arrangements – my dad is my manager. That’s cool.
Do you ever look over your back catalogue?
Yeah. Well let’s see..
Even the early boombox tapes?
Yeah I do. (Laughs). I was just trying to get famous, you know, and it worked! I was ‘Songwriting Of The Year’ in a reader’s poll in the Austin Chronicle. It was like a military takeover I was giving out a lot of tapes and doing a lot of shows. At the end of the day there were so many great bands who were playing back then – Poison 13, Glass Eye. So many great bands.
You released a book of your art earlier this year?
Yeah we’ve got a book of my art coming out. I guess you’ll find it at the book-store. It’s pretty cool. Dad says we’ll have to do that again in a couple of years.
Are you still a big fan of comic books?
Oh yeah! I still spend a lot of time looking at comic books. I want to be a comic book artist. You know I’ve had a lot of offers so I think that I might try to do it eventually. I draw more than anything, that’s what I love doing.
Who’s your favourite superhero?
I like all kinds of comics. A variety. I’ll go and buy all different kinds every time I go shopping. The art is great, especially the girls. So many of the girls look pretty so it’s like I’m kind of learning to spot girls.
Do you see much of a link between your art and your music?
It’s really the same thing, really. Just making up stuff and having fun. Having fun together.
Are you a self-taught musician?
It’s one of the healthiest things that I do, making music. I try to do it a lot otherwise I just go crazy! (Laughs)
The songs you haven’t recorded yet – do you remember them?
I recorded demos of a lot of songs that I don’t even really remember. I was looking through cassettes the other day and found lots of songs. I was doing demos and just putting them on a tape whenever I had a little bit of a song.
You’re coming to Britain soon this something you’re looking forward to?
Yeah! I really enjoy going there. We’ll put a band together when we play. You never know sometimes we do Beatles covers for a little fun. It depends what songs the band want to play. Is that good enough for an interview?