INTERVIEW: Daniel Johnston
This was probably one of the weirdest interviews I’ve ever taken part in (and, for placement, this happened pretty much exactly one year ago, in May of 2007. That’s how long we’ve been trying to start this effing magazine). Daniel Johnston was in Toronto as part of the Over the Top Festival, and he wasn’t really doing interviews. He was in pretty ill health, had just made some really creepy anti-Semitic comments at SXSW a few months earlier, and people seemed kind of unsure if he was actually becoming a Nazi or was just, you know… kind of crazy.
MTV Live was doing a feature on him the day after our interview, but they were (understandably) nervous about him giving the Nazi salute or some such thing on live television. Thus they wanted to supervise our interview. We were, for all intents and purposes, MTV guinea pigs. So to set the scene, this interview took place in a room with Daniel Johnston, a female fan, his brother, an MTV Live producer (keep in mind Daniel’s raging MTV obsession), that red-headed MTV Live host, and us (being Paul Korycki and Sam Sutherland of JUICEBOXdotcom).
Daniel was chain-smoking and eating fortune cookies the whole time, and would occasionally fall asleep with his cigarette still in his mouth. Sometimes he’d wake up on his own and answer the question. But mostly we would just wait.
(with files from Ashley Carter)
DANIEL JOHNSTON: [opens a fortune cookie] I got the worst fortune that ever was. Booby traps, somebody left this for me.
JUICEBOX: What’s it say?
DJ: “You are going to die!” I love fortune cookies.
JUICEBOX: We heard you grabbed a bunch of comics today.
DJ: Sure did. I—
[Daniel begins to fall asleep.]
JUICEBOX: Can we expect a Daniel Johnston comic book?
DJ: [wakes up] That’s what I want to do. I’ve had some offers from some different comic book companies. I would love that.
JUICEBOX: Storyline offers or your own thing?
DJ: I want to do the whole thing. That’s my dream. I always wanted to be a comic book artist. I didn’t think I could make it with my music. But the music did pretty well.
JUICEBOX: Well they kind of come hand in hand.
DJ: That’s true. It’s the same thing, you’re right.
JUICEBOX: So Lost And Found. You thank everyone in the whole world on this record. That’s a lot of people.
DJ: What was the question?
JUICEBOX: I guess that wasn’t a question at all. In the past few years your visual art has actually taken center stage, or at least has gained as much acclaim as your records. Has that changed your approach to music?
DJ: I’m not really sure what you said, I was spacing out. [He opens another fortune cookie] My fortune says this: “You will always be surrounded by those who love you.” Isn’t that a good one?
JUICEBOX: It is.
DJ: I’m gonna go for number two [he reaches for another cookie]. This reminds me of when I saw Captain Kirk on the Twilight Zone. He kept reading the devil’s fortune and he couldn’t get enough of it. Did anybody see that? Wasn’t that a good one?
JUICEBOX: Do you believe in the fortunes in fortune cookies?
DJ: I like the cookie. It tastes good.
JUICEBOX: What’s the best fortune you’ve ever gotten?
DJ: Well that last one was really one of the best. [He opens another] “A sweet surprise awaits you.”
JUICEBOX: Have you ever gotten a particularly ominous fortune?
DJ: Not that I can remember. They’re usually pretty polite. They don’t really say “You are doomed to die.”
JUICEBOX: If you could make up your own fortune for a cookie what would it be?
[Long silence as Daniel falls back asleep. The opening band starts playing in the background.]
JUICEBOX: You excited about the show today, Daniel?
DJ: [wakes up] The fortune cookie that I would write would just be like, ‘good luck’ or something like that.
JUICEBOX: The last record you recorded with a band. Do you like the atmosphere of backing musicians in a studio or do you prefer working alone at home on your tape recorder?
DJ: The studio. I want to get a better and better sound. When I started out all I had was a small cassette player. Now I’m on MTV. But as you can see, I’m not really a charismatic character or a celebrity. I’m toned down and shy. But I love to entertain and I love to write songs so I always thought I stood a pretty good chance of getting on MTV. It’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.
JUICEBOX: But you’ve been on MTV before.
DJ: I was on there one time before with the Cutting Edge show. I showed up where they were filming and they asked me to be on the show. When I saw myself – I was working at McDonald’s, the hamburger place, at the time – I go “I can’t believe it, man. I’ve made it!”
JUICEBOX: When you approach songwriting, is it the lyrics that come first?
DJ: It’s always different. I’m trying to write again, I haven’t been writing for awhile [Daniel begins to get distracted by the MTV crew supervising the interview] Hey, how many of you are from MTV?
MTV: [hi-jacking the interview, those dicks] Jessi Cruikshank and me. We spoke on the phone.
DJ: That’s great! Yeah. Alright!
JUICEBOX: So, Daniel—
DJ: [to MTV crew] What’s it gonna be like? Is it a live show?
MTV: Well… we’re taping tomorrow’s show. But usually we go live. It’s kind of a talk show and we’re going to have you perform two songs that’ll be on the show at night.
MTV: We’ll see if we can maybe get you to perform a couple of songs afterward for the crowd. But we have time constraints. Early in the day you and Jessi will do an interview. Is that okay?
DJ: It’s great!
MTV: It should be fun. We have a lot of bands who are excited to see you.
JUICEBOX: [attempting to take back the interview] So besides MTV has there been any other big thing that in your mind has marked your success?
DJ: It’s always been, “MTV is the big time.” I’d like to get some professional recordings and make some videos and try to get on. I wanna be on the major label again. My dad is my manager now and he’s really making things happen. I feel that eventually we will try to hit the mainstream with some sort of product that MTV would approve of.
JUICEBOX: Are there any other markers you set for yourself of what the big time is? Or what it will be when you get there?
DJ: Well I’ve got a band called Danny and the Nightmares and if I made it I’d probably try to make it with them. We’ve played for like five years and have a ton of songs so if anything ever happened, we’d be ready.
JUICEBOX: Can we expect an upcoming record from Danny and Nightmares?
DJ: Our future disc that we’re working on now is called The Death of Satan.
JUICEBOX: You’ve worked with a lot of impressive people. Is there anyone you’d still like to work with?
DJ: I still want to work with Brian Beattie [friend, current producer]. And I want to work with Paul Leary [of the Butthole Surfers, producer of Johnston’s major label debut — 1994’s Fun] again. We’ve talked a lot about working together again. Then I’m working with Danny and the Nightmares. So there’s a lot of projects.
JUICEBOX: Any other movies in the works?
DJ: I want to make videos. We made a bunch of videos and we plan to make another movie. We had the documentary movie (The Devil and Daniel Johnston). And the next one is more like a comedy than the documentary.
JUICEBOX: Did you have a lot of input in that documentary? Did you think it was a fair representation?
DJ: Well, they did it all themselves. But it was hilarious to see all my friends on there talking about me. It was pretty weird. I went to the grocery store and some girl says, “Hey, there’s that guy from the movie!” I like girls. I like to say that they’re good looking. Hello, girls.
JUICEBOX: You had some killer dance moves at the end of that movie.
DJ: [laughs] Yeah, at the end there. Man, it’s psycho. It looks like a psycho.
JUICEBOX: Have you been surprised at how huge the tapes you made in the early ‘80s have become? Anyone with an iPod has got at least one Daniel Johnston Hi, How Are you? track on there.
DJ: All I knew back then was art. I was so depressed that I would go to the library and they let me check out whatever I wanted. They had silent films in circulation. Every week they’d have different films, like Charlie Chaplin, all these different people, and I was just really loving art. I was in a world all by myself. What happened was that when I heard the Beatles music, I started coming out of my shell. I saw A Hard Day’s Night and then at school I started talking to girls in a British accent, coming on to them like I’m a Beatle or something. And I started writing songs all the time. That’s how it started.
JUICEBOX: Is it weird that you end up sharing something so insular at giant festivals?
DJ: It’s fun. The audience gives a pretty good reaction. It’s not really Beatlemania but, I mean, the last show we did sold out. The paper said “Daniel Johnston: SOLD OUT” and I thought, “Wait a minute, am I a sell out or what are they talking about?”
JUICEBOX: Do you prefer big festival crowds or something like this [Toronto’s Mod Club] with 1500 people? Where do you have the most fun performing?
DJ: I like Germany. We played at an old theatre and I just had to think, “Adolf Hitler probably was in this theatre going to shows and stuff during World War II.” It was that old, the place. So we made an album out of it. That’s my favourite place I’ve been. I’ve been all over Europe and Japan.
JUICEBOX: Do you like the travel?
DJ: It’s exciting and fun to go, but I prefer to stay at home. We plan to do shows so that I’ll have time off to write new songs and stuff. My brother plans it and gets all the bands and makes the arrangements. The band we got together tonight is really good. And we’ve had 3 or 4 other bands on the tour. This is my brother Dick Johnston [points to a dude leaning against the wall]. I call him Sergeant Pepper because he’s got a mustache.
JUICEBOX: So I guess to end this off, if you could ask yourself one question, what would it be and how would you answer it?
[Long silence. Daniel is sleeping again.]
JUICEBOX: Sorry, did you hear that one okay?
DJ: What was the question? I’m sorry.
JUICEBOX: If you could ask yourself one question…
DJ: I’d be afraid to ask myself a question. I would speak up and then it wouldn’t stop. I’d keep talking to myself. It would be scary.
JUICEBOX: That’s the best answer you could have given. That’s probably a good note to end on.
DJ: I think I do talk to myself a lot. My mother always complained. When I used to live with my parents, we’d be sitting down for supper and I’d be telling jokes to myself and laughing out loud and they’d be like, “What is the matter with you?”
JUICEBOX: [after being told by press folk that the interview slot is indeed over] Alright cool, I think that’s good. Thanks a—
DJ: I do love to be alone. I’m a loner. You know, like the Neil Young song.
JUICEBOX: “The Loner.”
DJ: That’s it! That’s where it came from! Neil Young has a song that goes, “He’s a loner…”
[JUICEBOX + DJ sing a couple of lines]
DJ: [laughing] I always identified with that. That’s where I got the loner persona. I’ve been a loner ever since junior high. I used to be so popular in elementary school, I was like the most popular kid in school. I was together then and everything was cool. But when I went to junior high I got manic depression. Man, was I low. I didn’t want to talk to anybody or associate with anybody. It went on forever and I never have recovered. But the good news is that with recent things happening — this MTV thing and everything — I’m feeling like my old self again. I feel confident and I’m happy. My brother is helping me with everything. Things are going along really well. It’s building.