Daniel Johnston's Perfect Day: "Either a Girl Comes Over, Or I Write a Good Song" | West Coast Sound | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Daniel Johnston's Perfect Day: "Either a Girl Comes Over, Or I Write a Good Song"

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Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 8:48 AM

click to enlarge Daniel Johnston in Copenhagen, April 2010 - PETER JUHL
  • Peter Juhl
  • Daniel Johnston in Copenhagen, April 2010
Interview by Drew Fortune

A day before I get Daniel Johnston on the phone from his home in the small town of Waller, TX, I'm on the line with his 90-year-old father and manager Bill Johnston, arranging an interview time. Speaking with a world-weary drawl, Bill cautions me, "Make sure you call exactly on time tomorrow. If you're late, Dan tends to get fussy and I can't control him." In regards to Daniel's upcoming L.A. gigs, Bill asks, "Keep him out of trouble for me, will ya?" He's not joking.

Since the release of his first self-recorded, basement tape Songs of Pain in 1981, Daniel Johnston has been building a legend; a cult-icon with a legacy marred by debilitating manic depression and self-destruction. As the 2006 award-winning documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston chronicled, Daniel's rise to fame as both an artist and musician has included countless stints in mental institutions, a plane crash, arrests, and a never-ending grudge match with the Devil. A shorthand list of celebrity admirers includes Tom Waits, Beck, Wilco and Sonic Youth, all of whom have covered Daniel on one of seven tribute albums. In the last few years, with the right combination of prescription meds, Daniel has been more prolific and stable then ever. He's moved out of the basement and into a house next door to his parents. He's toured Europe with the Dutch ensemble BEAM ORCHESTRA and recorded his 45th album Beam Me Up! He's about to release his first comic book Space Ducks in the fall, along with a new album from his garage band Danny and the Nightmares.

When I get Daniel on the phone a day later, he exclaims with high-pitched, childlike enthusiasm, "Hi! This is Daniel Johnston. How are you?" Although his mind seems to wander toward the end of our interview, it's amazing to realize that in his fiftieth year, Daniel is only getting warmed up.

LA WEEKLY: What's it like being on the road these days? Is it exhausting?

Daniel Johnston: I like to tour, but I prefer to tour in the United States. If I go overseas, I tend to get into trouble. One time I got lost overseas. I don't remember where I was, but I went to a police station to find out where I was, and it was just too scary {laughs}. We'd be stuck in some place for a day, or miss a flight and things like that. So I'm much more comfortable touring the United States, and just driving everywhere

Can you walk me through a typical day for Daniel Johnston?

Well, I stay up all night usually. I try to play music every day, but mostly I've been drawing a lot recently. But I've been trying to get back into the music. I've also been working on a comic book that my brother's gonna sell on the internet. But I'm still working on that.

I assume that creating your own comic book has been a life-long dream.

When I was a kid, I always thought that I'd be a comic book artist. It took a long time to start thinking that I could be a musician. Even when I went to Austin, and I first started out playing shows and wound up on MTV, I was still thinking that my cartoons would be my living more than my music. But, the music suddenly started to get such a good response and I was encouraged by that, so I kept on writing more and more.

Does art come before the music, or are they equally important?

They're both like the same thing to me. I wanna do both. Sometimes I'll get an idea for a song when I'm drawing, and sometimes it happens the other way around. I couldn't live without both in my life.

Do you ever listen to your early recordings?

Every once in awhile I'll listen to some of those old cassettes. Some of the old songs bring up memories that I haven't thought about in a long time.

In that sense, are you still able to relate to the material?

Yeah, it's just a continued story of my life. The same heroes and the same villains.

What's the experience of watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston like for you?

I watched it last week actually. When it first came out, I was really freaked out about the title of the movie, because I didn't like having the devil and myself in the title. But I should have known better. I had dug my own grave. I talked about the devil and Satan a lot back then, so I guess I had it coming {laughs}. When I see all the footage of all the different people in my life and all my friends, I think it's a pretty funny show.

Granted, I don't know much about your condition, but when you watch some of your most manic moments in the movie, do you remember what was going through your head at the time?

Yeah. I was feeling pretty good I guess.

Those moments of mania look like a nightmare...

What moments in particular?

I immediately think of the plane crash.

Oh my. That was a nightmare. It sure was. I don't really like to think about that.

Moving on to happier subjects, you've got your own bachelor pad now. What's your love life like?

There's some girls that I talk to on the phone. This very beautiful girl came by recently to take some photographs of me. She's been here twice already, and she may come back. So I'm very happy about that. But I like my bachelor pad. I hang stuff all over the walls.

Do you think you'll ever leave Waller?

I've got my new house now. There ain't no way I'm going anywhere. I've found my home forever.

What's a perfect day for Daniel Johnston?

That's easy. Either a girl comes over or I write a good song. That's about perfect for me.

Daniel Johnston will be performing songs from his entire catalogue July 22 at El Rey and will perform and host a gallery showing of his art at Open Borders July 24.

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