Mystery loves company 

A talk with cult songwriter and offbeat artist Daniel Johnston

When Bob Dylan and collaborator/playwright Jacques Levy wrote of “a high place of darkness and light (where) the dividing line ran through the center of town,” in the 1975 tune “Isis,” they were describing a mythical destination on one man’s spiritual journey.

However, they could just as easily have been describing the complex and seemingly dichotomous mind of Daniel Dale Johnston.Perceived by some as one of the most accomplished and inimitable songwriters of his generation and by others as an overrated tunesmith whose arguably non-commercial work is embraced by music-scene hipsters in search of a subterranean icon, a close examination of Johnston’s actual output —rather than the rhetoric surrounding it— makes a compelling case for the former, rather than the latter.

Over the course of a tumultuous career that has spanned a quarter of a century, the 46-year-old singer and musician (he accompanies himself on guitar and keyboards, and plays drums on occasion) has written, recorded and released hundreds of songs — at first on cheap, homemade cassette tapes which he distributed by hand on the streets of Austin, Tx., and later on professionally manufactured tape, vinyl and CD courtesy of several established labels (both indie and major).

His compositions, which have been covered in concert and on record by such well-known alt.rock acolytes as Beck, Wilco, Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo (among others), fearlessly chronicle Johnston’s own life, loves and personal travails — often with a measure of heartbreaking and guileless honesty that is rather unheard of in the “pop” music form.

It’s that ability to cut to the quick, and to expose his own dreams and memories of fear, joy and conflict in the most raw and unfiltered terms that causes some to discount (or in some cases, flatly dismiss) Johnston’s work. However, it is this unbridled passion for the “glory of the moment” that has won him legions of extremely loyal and fervent fans worldwide.

They find in Daniel Johnston’s music (and, it must be said, in his true-life story, which is inextricably linked to much of his artistic output), evidence of hopefulness in a world many believe has gone horribly awry. The recurring themes of good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, love vs. hate and tranquility vs. insanity which pervade his best work are universally understood and appreciated.

Though well-known to underground and “outsider” music aficionados for decades, Johnston’s mainstream profile increased dramatically in 2005 with the release of the award-winning documentary feature The Devil & Daniel Johnston. Eight years in the making, it shined a welcome light into the relatively private world of this uniquely creative personality. It also presented him as a happy-go-lucky man beset by all manner of personal demons.

Since his late teens, Johnston has suffered from severe bouts of manic depression — a condition he acknowledges as having a noticeable affect on the content of his songs, and which is perhaps most evident in his surreal, comic book-inspired, analogous paintings and drawings (which have become highly prized by collectors since Johnston was given his own show at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art).

Yet, it would be a mistake to view Daniel Johnston as some sort of “idiot savant,” as he is commonly (and quite mistakenly) described. Rather, he is a highly intelligent and gifted visionary artist who merely lives his prolific and highly creative life —to some degree— outside of the bounds of conventional societal norms.

In the past decade, his emotional difficulties have been greatly minimized through proper medication —something he has been openly thankful for— and this measure of stability and freedom has allowed him to conduct short tours both here and abroad (Savannah’s show is one of only four Southern gigs this year).

Almost wherever he goes, Johnston sells out clubs and concert halls, filling them with respectful longtime fans and recent converts alike, all of whom share one common bond: a fierce love and strong connection to the relatively unknown man’s mesmerizing and transformative art.

Daniel Johnston spoke wiht me by phone from his home in Waller, Tx., just outside Houston.

So, what have you been up to today?

Daniel Johnston: Well, I just kinda woke up, you know? But, lately, I’m trying to record an album with my band The Nightmares. We’re looking forward to eventually releasing that. In the meantime, I’ve been doing some tours with my brother. Just last month I was even on Canadian MTV.

Is that very different from MTV here?

Daniel Johnston: I don’t know. They sure were nice, though. I did a couple of songs and an interview, and it seemed like it went really well.

I saw you on the Henry Rollins Show.

Daniel Johnston: Yeah, well he wasn’t really there at the same time as me. They filmed it separately, as if he had asked me questions. You know, they’d ask them and I’d pretend to be answering him! I didn’t get a chance to meet him, but we were there at the studio, and it was pretty cool.

How much time do you spend working on either your artwork or your music?

Daniel Johnston: Well (yawns), I spend a lot of time on both. I do a lot of drawing. I really try to keep up with that. I’ll admit I’m a little lazy. I’m having kind of a “hard to be inspired” period right now. But I still try to play for at least an hour a day, anyway. I draw more than I play music, actually. I dream of doing comics someday, so that’s one reason I try to keep up with it and keep on going. I have so many songs that I have written which I haven’t recorded, but I have plans to do so. I’m looking real forward to recording them in the future.

Are these older or more recent songs?

Daniel Johnston: Most of these are from the last five years. You know, I have three whole albums’ worth of songs that were written a while back that have yet to be released. But we’re planning to put those out soon. There’s a lot backing up!

Will you issue these yourself?

Daniel Johnston: Well, we hope to get together with bigger labels, so we can do more professional recording than before, in nicer and “more real” studios. Most everything that has been released already is finally available again, but it’s really important to me to get stuff out there and to keep on releasing new material.

One of your older albums that I have gotten a tremendous amount of inspiration and enjoyment from is the one you made in 1988 with Jad Fair from Half Japanese.

Daniel Johnston: I enjoy that record, too. It’s one of my favorites.

Do you still keep in touch with Jad?

Daniel Johnston: We talk every once in a while. I’ve seen him in concert.

I know that you were recently able to have your first house built very near your folks.

Daniel Johnston: Yep! Right next door.

How long have you lived there?

Daniel Johnston: It’s been about a year now. I’m loving having my own place. It was some land dad had next door. So yeah, it’s working out great.

I know you still see your folks all the time, but what’s the best part about having your own place?

Daniel Johnston: Oh, it’s great to just watch movies all day long and just chow down! You know, take it easy. I love to be alone. I always have.

Can you recommend any particularly good movies you’ve seen recently?

Daniel Johnston: Hmmm... Movies to recommend? Well, I like horror movies a lot, and there’s an old one with Christopher Lee that I think is called Curse of Frankenstein.

That’s a Hammer Studios film, right?

Daniel Johnston: Yeah! The Hammer films. Now, those I like a lot.

A friend of mine who’s really into Hammer Studios turned me onto this late ‘60s Hammer film called The Devil Rides Out. It’s really good, but what makes it so unusual is that it’s one of the rare horror films where Christopher Lee actually plays the good guy who’s fighting the evil forces.

Daniel Johnston: Oh wow. I’ve never heard of that one, but I’ll sure be on the lookout for it.

You’ve been touring a bit more than usual over the last few years. What do you enjoy most about being on the road?

Daniel Johnston: Well, actually I don’t like to travel that much. It’s always trains and airplanes, and sometimes we miss ‘em and we’re stuck somewhere. I’d rather just play locally here in Texas. It’s a big state and there’s plenty of cool places for me to play.

You just played the Highline Festival in NYC that David Bowie put together. Did you get to hang out with him at all?

Daniel Johnston: No, but I took a picture of myself next to a cardboard cut-out of him! I haven’t seen it yet, but it did look like we were standing together (laughs).

Had you met Bowie before?

Daniel Johnston: No, but he has mentioned me in articles, which is really a compliment, because he’s one of the greatest of all time, for sure!

You’ve said recently that in some ways you feel better now than you have in years. What’s the best part of being Daniel Johnston in 2007?

Daniel Johnston: Well, I have a little bit more money now, so I’m able to live a little bit better. Of course, I’ve also been able to do more live shows, which means a lot.

What’s the single biggest misconception people have about you?

Daniel Johnston: Well, it’s kinda like... I don’t know. Because of the movie, I look like pretty much of a space case. Then again, that’s true! (laughs) Whatever they think is whatever they think. I’m not really bothered by it, ‘cause I can’t change it. It’s just the songs that mean the most, and you know, whatever else I might have done or said, I guess that’s my fault. (laughs)

For the past few months, you’ve been finding local bands in some of the towns you visit to learn some of your songs in advance and act as your band for that night. Has that been working out well?

Daniel Johnston: Well, it’s been a lot of good times! We’ve had a lotta fun and the bands have sounded great. They really know the songs well. We get together and have kind of a warm-up practice at the soundcheck, and it usually comes together pretty well. A few times things have kind of fallen apart, but that was no big deal.

For part of your show, your friend Brett Hartenbach will play guitar with you?

Daniel Johnston: I went to college with him, and we’d always play music and stuff way back when. That was back in the Songs of Pain era, if you’re familiar with that time period. We’d go to Pizza Hut and to our friends’ houses and do stuff like pretend we were on talk shows — just like a lot of would-be artists or stars do before they ever try for fame and fortune. (laughs)

And all these years later, while you might not have a fortune, you’re certainly famous.

Daniel Johnston: I’ve gotten a lot more famous since that movie came out, that’s for sure. Now, when I go to the grocery store, people recognize me! They come up and wanna talk.

Have you ever been to Savannah before?

Daniel Johnston: I don’t believe I have.

What can folks expect to hear at this show?

Daniel Johnston: I choose what songs I want to play during my solo part of the show — in collaboration with my brother and Brett. Then the bands get to pick which of my songs they want to play with me. Some of the ones they’ve chosen were some of my favorites anyway, and they’re ones I don’t get to play that much, so it’s really cool.

Now we’ve come to the single most important question of this interview and perhaps one of the most important questions you’ve been asked in a very long time.

Daniel Johnston: (lowering his voice to a concerned whisper) Oh... Okay.

What does Daniel Johnston like on his pizza?

Daniel Johnston: What do I like on my pizza? (laughs) Well, I like hamburgers and black olives. That’s my favorites.

Just hamburger and black olives?

Daniel Johnston: Well, plus cheese and sauce, of course. Why did you ask me about pizza?

I thought your dad said you were waiting on a delivery from Domino’s.

Daniel Johnston: Oh, yeah! But I didn’t order a pizza, I just ordered some soda pop.

You had them drive soda pop to your house?

Daniel Johnston: Yep. I drink a lot of soda pop. (laughs) I do like pizza, but I make my own. I go to the store and I buy French bread and then I cover it with pizza sauce and cheese and pepperoni. It’s pretty good that way. You should try it!

I’m still blown away by the soda pop delivery service. That’s a pretty good thing you’ve got going there. (laughs) What did you get?

Daniel Johnston: Coke and Sprite.

The best of both worlds. (laughs)

Daniel Johnston: Uh-huh. (laughs) Thanks so much for taking the time to call. See you at the show!

Tiny Team presents Daniel Johnston with special guests Keith Kozel & The Lovesick and Pink Kodiak, Sunday at 8 pm at Savannah Smiles. The 21+ show is co-sponsored by Connect Savannah and Annie’s Guitars & Drums. Tickets are $23 in advance or $26 at the door. Charge them at www.tinyteamconcerts.info, or buy with cash at Primary Art Supply, Le Chai galerie du vin (in Starland), Annie’s Guitars & Drums, Marigold Beauty Concepts and Silly Mad CDs. Sample music at www.myspace.com/tinyteamconcerts, www.hihowareyou.com or www.rejectedunknown.com.


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