By Joe O'Brien.
It’s hard to try to sum up Daniel Johnston in the intro to an interview and I don’t want to embarrass myself by attempting to pontificate on mental illness and tortured genius and all of the things that people usually say. There is a documentary out, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which provides an in-depth look at the man’s life and times. There’s also the catalog of hundreds of songs and drawings that he’s created in the past 20 plus years. Ever since I heard Daniel Johnston’s music for the first time, I’ve wanted to talk to him. I was excited to finally get the chance to do it.
You’re known to tell a joke on stage once in a while.
Some jokes, yeah. But I have some jokes that I was asked not to tell. I have one joke where I said, “Tonight the Jews are having a pajama party at the concentration camp.” And it didn’t go over very well.
Yeah, holocaust humor is always a risk.
I mean, the audience laughed but the record company president came backstage after the show and said, “Don’t say that joke, I’m a Jew.” So I was criticized for that joke. And then my other joke was “I had a dream that this guy was sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide.” But that was an actual dream that I really had.
Are you happy with the way The Devil and Daniel Johnston documentary came out?
Yeah. The movie is sort of a comedy too, in a way. It does seem to have a little bit of a sense of humor. I wanted to tell them that maybe they should add a laugh track. It might help it a bit, you know. Because it’s sort of serious too much I think.
How long was the process of putting the film together?
They took forever to do it. They came over, the first time, for five days. Then they kept coming again and again with different ideas, you know, and they’d meet us in England, New York, Los Angeles, places like that.
You live just outside of Austin, right?
Just outside of Austin, towards Houston. Out in the countryside. There’s a lot of countryside towns all through the countryside here. We’re just another small town. I’m buying a house now. I’m really excited to have a house of my own. Right here, next door to my parents. So I’m really happy about that.
I go through moods where your songs get stuck in my head for days on end and I play them over and over again. Lately it’s been “Living Life.” It cheers me up. When did you write that?
It was one night when I had my birthday and my mother wouldn’t let me play my piano for some reason. So I left my house and went down to my cousin’s house and wrote the song. That’s an old one. I was probably 18 or 19.
Do you listen to your own songs a lot?
I do, occasionally, just for something to do when I’m bored, you know. I do listen to some. The one I listen to the most is the Fear Yourself album. That one really entertains me the most and I have listened to that one more than others. So when I’m smoking or taking it easy sometimes I put some of them on.
I’ve never really tried to quit smoking, have you?
Oh, no. I love to smoke. I love to smoke. I’m a chain-smoker, you know.
How did you end up collaborating with Mark Linkus from Sparklehorse on the Fear Yourself album?
They sent me Sparklehorse singles and they were so excellent. And it was really scary music, you know. And I got some of their CDs and really enjoyed the music a lot. It’s very Beatle-ish. And I really love the Beatles. And then the president of Gammon records called and asked, ‘Would you like to make an album with Sparklehorse?’ And it was so cool because I had a notebook with enough songs for an album that I had no idea what to do with. So it worked out perfectly. We really want to get together again. We talk on the phone and every time I get a really good song I save it for him.
You always say how much you like the Beatles. What do you think of the Rolling Stones?
I was just thinking about them the other day. How great their music really is, you know. I was thinking about “You Don’t Know What You Got” and that choir of angels and stuff. I mean, their music is exceptionally great, there’s no denying. One time, years ago, at an antique store, someone brought in like a complete collection of Rolling Stones albums. And I got them all.
What’s the story about you being scared of Metallica?
Well I was in the mental hospital and my manager kept visiting me trying to get me to sign with Elektra. And Metallica was on Elektra. And I was thinking about it and then I thought, “Metallica will kill me.” I was so stupid, I could have been on Elektra, you know? I didn’t have any money. I could’ve been a millionaire. And then Steven Spielberg tried to sign me. And I turned him down. I told him, “I don’t want to be another E.T.” My own decision, my own brain.
So you just want to do it on your own terms?
Well, I was on Atlantic for a while. I hope to be on a major label again.
I was just listening to your new song “Rock This Town.” I couldn’t find a lyric sheet, but there’s this line I love where I think you say, “I took my guitar to heavy metal school.” Is that what it is?
Yeah, “I took my guitar to heavy metal school and told them all about the golden rule. They just laughed in my face and said I was a space case. The last of the human race.”
Would you rather be a dwarf or a giant?
A giant, for sure. Any dwarf would agree they’d rather be a giant.
I always think so too. You figure a giant is looked at with awe but a dwarf deals with being mocked so much.
Of course a giant might think, “I’m too big, there’s nowhere to be.”
Yeah, driving a car, flying in an airplane.
Exactly. Everything’s too small. But when you’re a dwarf everyone always says, “Hey, you’re a dwarf.” I guess I’d rather be just like I am.”
[This interview originally appeared in the great Flop Sweat Magazine and is posted here with permission.]