Q&A with Daniel Johnston
It’s honest. It’s eccentric. It’s genius. The music and art of Daniel Johnston is beyond explanation. He pioneered lo-fi, indie music, and since the early ‘80’s his brilliance has influenced artists from Kurt Cobain to The Flaming Lips. He’s a legend and he’s an inspiration to indie musicians across the globe. And The Blue Indian is proud to bring you an exclusive conversation with Daniel. We cover topics from the Beatles to the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston and his November 20th release, “Is And Always Was” (2009). To say that we’re honored to have him just doesn’t cut it; we’re gratefully fascinated.
Click the link below to play the interview or right-click it and choose “Save Target As…” to save it to your computer.
For our literate web site visitors we are also providing a full text transcript below:
The Blue Indian (Luke Goddard): Is this Mr. Daniel Johnston?
Daniel Johnston: You got me! I’m here talking to you.
TBI: Well, it’s good to touch base with you! How are you doing today?
Daniel Johnston: Well, things are alright.
TBI: Daniel, I’m the founder of an indie music website called The Blue Indian and we wanted to interview you. We’re big fans of your music and your art. First, I want to start off just by asking you… a lot of independent musicians as well as some of the more known artists, such as Beck, the Butthole Surfers, and Nirvana have been inspired by your music. How do you feel about that?
Daniel Johnston: Ah, it’s pretty cool. The attention was nice, ya know. Sells a few records.
TBI: Cool. How are you feeling today, Mr. Johnston?
Daniel Johnston: Just fine!
TBI: That’s great. Now, you’re living in Waller, TX. Tell us about this place. It’s pretty small, right?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, it’s just a small-town-cow-town.
TBI: Do you like Waller, TX? Is this somewhere you’d like to stay permanently?
Daniel Johnston: I have to live here now. So, I’m gonna stay… I’m gonna stay.
TBI: Before we talk too much about you today, let’s go back in time for a second. I’ve previously mentioned that one of the biggest figures in Rock history, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, was photographed often wearing your t-shirt, “Hi, How Are You?”
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, he was more than once photographed, too. Not just on the show. It was pretty wild, man. He was top-star that year, ya know. On the MTV awards show, he wore it, which was pretty cool.
TBI: How did that make you feel when you saw that on TV? Must have been pretty wild.
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, my friend brought it over and I hung it up on the wall. Now, that was a long time ago. We’re talking about… oh… like 1995 or something like that.
Daniel Johnston: It’s been a long time…
TBI: Did you ever try to touch base with [Kurt Cobain] after seeing that?
Daniel Johnston: Well yeah, I didn’t really have any real contacts. So…
TBI: Well, it must have been pretty cool knowing that [Kurt Cobain] was a fan of your music?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, that was really cool. I like his music a lot, too.
TBI: Now, you were really inspired growing up by bands like the Monkees, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and the Beach Boys as of late, right?
Daniel Johnston: That’s right. Yep, that’s right. Well, I’m listening to too much right now, but yeah, I generally listen to all kinds of different music.
TBI: Who did you like better: Paul McCartney or John Lennon?
Daniel Johnston: I liked them together. You know, when they were together, they were great. You know, they were always great– even with their solo albums. But uh, together… that was really the best.
TBI: There’s a very interesting documentary about your life called, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I heard about that…
TBI: Yeah, have you had a chance to see it?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I’ve seen it. [awkward silence] I’ve seen it a few times.
TBI: How do you feel about it? The production crew did a good job, I thought. I was impressed.
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, they put it together pretty well. But, it just seemed like such a tragedy. Every time I had some trouble in life, it was in the movie, you know? But, it’s kind of funny. There’s a lot of funny things in the movie.
TBI: Certainly some funny parts. The short films you made as a child about your mother was super funny, Daniel.
Daniel Johnston: [Laughing]
TBI: But, you’re right! There was some tragic moments in the film that must have upset you and your parents.
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, they knew about all that stuff… But for it to all be on the show, that’s one thing…
TBI: Yeah, it won a major award at the Sundance Film Festival the week it came out. I’m assuming you went to the premiere?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I went to the premiere.
TBI: Well Daniel, you grew up in a Christian home. Tell me about that.
Daniel Johnston: Oh! It was great! It was a great world, my childhood. You know, I had a very good childhood. It was great times back then– lots of you know…
TBI: Lots of good memories.
Daniel Johnston: That’s right.
TBI: Do you ever think about those times? Or are you living in today?
Daniel Johnston: Well… I don’t remember much from my childhood at this point, you know. But uh… I don’t know what to tell you.
TBI: I understand. Would you mind elaborating a little more on the title of the documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.” Did you have anything to do with that?
Daniel Johnston: No, I didn’t! They told me originally it was gonna be called, “Yip Jump Music.” And I thought, “that’s pretty weird.” But uh, two or three weeks before it would be shown for the first time, they told us the new title. And there was nothing I could do about it. It sure is a nightmare to have my name right by the Devil’s! That’s the way it was, though. [Laughs]
TBI: It’s an interesting title. Dan, there was a time in your life, as shown in the film, where you had to deal with these warring forces in your mind of Good vs. Evil. Is this something that just went on during that time period or is this something that you still deal with today?
Daniel Johnston: [in a somber tone] Ah man… it’s been forever… It’s been forever.
Daniel Johnston: I’m working on a cartoon. A cartoon about it.
TBI: Tell me about this. Are you going to get Cartoon Network or Adult Swim to pick it up? Or is this something you’re just doing independently?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I’ve got some connections…
TBI: Well, that’s cool! I saw recently that you were backstage with the creator and producer of The Simpsons. I was wondering if you’re going to get into comics or writing for these TV shows?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I want to do comic books, too. It’s always been sort of an aspiration to do comic books and stuff, so… That’s one of the things that I want to do in the future.
TBI: Dan, I must say I’m really impressed with your artwork, as everyone else. You’re truly a phenomenal artist.
Daniel Johnston: Well, thank you very much.
TBI: Are there still handmade tapes that you used to hand out to people in the 80s and 90s? Are those still available?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, people always want me to autographed them. Yeah, I’ve seen loops floating around.
TBI: Are you still making tapes today, Dan?
Daniel Johnston: No, no… We just had a new album out called, “Is And Always Was.” It was produced in LA and should be in stores by now.
TBI: Oh okay! I’ll have to check that out. I didn’t know that. I saw where you just got back from London. Were you touring in Europe?
Daniel Johnston: Yep, we were. It’s so hard to keep track of the places we go because we’re always running around.
TBI: Well Dan, you just mentioned LA. You were once signed to the major label- Atlantic Records. Is this a label you’d like to release a new album on? Are you through with them? How is that?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, I’m not on Atlantic Records anymore. I’d like to be back some day. I don’t know…
TBI: So today, how do you stay inspired? What stabilizes your mind? What… [interrupted by Daniel]
Daniel Johnston: [in a somber tone] Ah, I don’t. I don’t. Sometimes I get depressed and I just can’t get it going, you know. I plan to keep on trying until I can get it going again.
TBI: In your documentary, it shows that you have a sensitive spot for a lady named Laurie Allen. You were inspired by her. Does she still find her way into your music?
Daniel Johnston: [awkward silence] No.
TBI: Okay… Well, there’s an interesting video on the internet of an animation of your song, “I Had Lost My Mind.” There’s this strange figure with things coming out of his head. Is this your art?
Daniel Johnston: Yeah, it was my idea as far as things coming out of your head. But, I’m not even sure which one you’re referring to. But, I love art. I do.
TBI: Daniel, there’s no doubt that you’re famous. I mean, every indie fan knows you. You’re sort of a legend in Texas and across the pond as well. You have quite a following in Europe. How has fame affected you, Dan?
Daniel Johnston: Well, it’s what I’ve always wanted. You know, I’m making a living so I’m happy. Things are going alright.
TBI: Yeah, I mean, you sort of did it for yourself. In fact, in the documentary, it shows old footage of you walking up to the guy that ran the Austin Chronicle at the time and you saying, “My name is Daniel Johnston and I’m going to be famous.”
Daniel Johnston: [Laughing]
TBI: You sort of did it yourself.
Daniel Johnston: I was gonna do it anyways. No matter what you thought.
TBI: You did. Nothing stopped you.
Daniel Johnston: Well, I’d like to thank you for calling. I have to go now.
TBI: Alright, Dan. Thanks so much for talking to me.
Daniel Johnston: Alright, you too. Take care.